Before starting reviewing D’ailleurs, la révélation, I would like to introduce some key features that form the frame of this book concerning its author and the context that is issued. Jean-Luc Marion’s D’Ailleurs, la révélation is a masterpiece of philosophical thought and literary beauty. Without any doubt, the author is one of the greatest philosophers of this century. Besides being a recognized expert in the philosophy of Descartes, he has made many contributions to the philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger. Furthermore, we observe his influence in many other scholars inspired by his thought. In Christian theology, we are used to identifying the Church Fathers in two classes: those who consecrated themselves to defend the Christian faith through apologetics and those who deepened Christian theology. These last ones we call Polemists. Marion is a polemical thinker in a Christian sense of the word. He has brought to the debate a Christian reflection showing its pertinence to philosophy today. Moreover, he is one of the most important representatives of the renowned movement of renewing phenomenology in France besides great philosophers and theologians such as Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Philippe Capelle-Dumont, Michel Henry, Paul Ricœur, and others. It is also worthy to note that Marion displays acuteness both in philosophy and theology, something that starts becoming rare in our days. Many philosophers have not enough theological training. In this way, they misinterpret some Christian theological concepts. Moreover, we have to mention the elegance of using the French language marking his literary style. Both the content and the writing style are well-conceived enhancing the experience of reading. We cannot expect less from a member of the Académie Française (The French Academy of literature). A well-built philosophical theology or a well-built theological philosophy, it is up to the reader to decide. However, Marion walks in the path of most prominent Christian philosophers such as Augustin of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas. We will notice that the main discussion of the book is the possibility of overcoming the opposition between faith and reason through a new way, that is, a phenomenological way. Marion will regroup some themes such as revelation, the distinction between Greek Aletheia and Biblical Apocalupsis, witness, love, the phenomenological reduction of the givenness, saturated phenomenon, anamorphosis, paradox in the book. Some of them already present in other books, however in D’ailleurs, la révélation, he organizes them in a way to show the coherence of his entire philosophical-theological thought. Therefore, D’Ailleurs, la Révélation is an invitation for thinking. We are sure that its reception will trigger some discussions concerning revelation and its status in philosophical thinking. We will go further into the provocative character of the book later in this book review.
Marion has presented innovative and profound ideas in this book, but we should consider its symmetric format, too. A discussion of each part will follow in this review, nevertheless, as an introduction, I think it would be worthy of noting the internal arrangement of the book in six parts with four chapters each, excepting the first and the last parts containing two chapters each. The first part (The sending) deals with the problem of the revelation. It starts with the notion of revelation as a general phenomenon in philosophy and not a religious concept only, the Revelation.
The second part (The constitution of the aporia) concerns a discussion of the theme in medieval philosophical theology. In the third part (The restitution of a theological concept), Marion exposes the differences between two concepts of truth – Apocalupsis and Aletheia. He aims at showing the contrast between the Greek notion and the Judeo-Christian. Especially in this part, Marion introduces the idea of anamorphosis borrowed from art and optics to use it in philosophy to question the role of the subject as a critical observer of reality. In this way, Marion illustrates that reality can appear otherwise before the eyes of the observer. Then he should become a witness guided by the saturation of the phenomenon that arrives before him.
In the fourth part (Christ as a phenomenon), we consider how the revelation phenomenalizes itself. Revelation is not a saturated phenomenon, but it reveals Christ, the saturated phenomenon par excellence. From this point, the content starts becoming more theological. In the fifth part (The icon of the invisible), Marion starts dealing with the divine Trinity and all its conundrums to human reason. Finally, in the sixth part (The opening), Marion proposes a reflection concerning being and time from a revelational perspective.
At the end of the book, we find an index nominum with the names mentioned with whom Marion has dialogued, however, the entry of Hegel is missing. A second index presents all biblical references that Marion uses throughout the book. It helps a lot when we need to verify the interpretation of the text made by the author to support a given argumentation. However, an important biblical text – Psalm 19 – generally present in discussions about revelation, does not appear in the book, unfortunately.
Through this review, we would like to emphasize the main lines drawn by the author to establish his thesis. Therefore, we intend to identify the major contributions of the author, however, due to the length of the book (600 pages) and its density, it will become the subject of many academic articles for critical analysis. For this task, I would like to start presenting this work.
In part 1, « The Sending », Marion proposes to think of the world, not as an opened space but something which shows itself in a continuous flow as a river. This notion highlights that the phenomena that we perceive in our daily life show themselves by themselves. They reveal themselves to us. Thus, revelation is something common to our everyday experience. He gives us two examples, one more ordinary than the other, in a very poetic way, the act of skiing and the act of love or using an expression from the author as an erotic act. Both of them have three dimensions – it reveals itself, it reveals a world where this act takes place, and it reveals myself to myself (il me révèle à moi-même). By referencing the act of skiing, Marion intends to show that an ordinary act can always reveal something from itself. However, in the second example, the act of love, Marion shows that even complex phenomena reveal deep structures of reality as time, space, and relation. The relation here is not a simple relation of cause and effect but a personal relationship between myself and somebody else. We can see a strong influence of Hans Urs Von Balthasar here. In part 3, we find a deployment of this topic because, following the thought of St. Augustine, love is a prerequisite to search for truth. Marion starts leading us to not consider epistemology as something deprived of personal relation. Through an Augustinian path, Marion will demonstrate that truth demands love.
The reader accustomed to Marion will notice from the beginning that his ideas such as the donation (la donation) as a third phenomenological reduction, the saturated phenomenon, the erotic reduction, and the concept of revelation are present in this book. However, all of his contributions seem to find their achievement. The idea of revelation is a kind of fil d’Ariane that guides us through the labyrinth of Marion’s thought. Furthermore, in chapter 2 of part 1, we find the main structure for this idea of revelation that englobes a triad consisting of the witness, the resistance, and the paradox. By these concepts, the phenomenality of the revelation can be perceived and understood. However, an expression that will drive the thought of Marion concerning the revelation is its character elsewhere (d’ailleurs). Even though d’ailleurs gives the idea of something coming from somewhere else or from someone else, it can indicate a change in the logical plan and allow us to add a new element without necessary relation with what we have just said. Therefore, the notion of revelation from elsewhere (d’ailleurs) enables us to have a new way of interpreting reality. He introduces another rationality concerning philosophical thought. In this way, he plays with these two significations of the French expression at the same time.
Part 2 provides a route to a discussion in medieval thought. This second part, called « The constitution of the aporia », retraces the concept of revelation to interrogate if it is possible to consider it as a propositional communication of knowledge of God. Even though this discussion alludes to The Middle Ages, it has implications in our days, for example, the status of theology as a science. In this way, Marion brings into the discussion two exponents – Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez.
Firstly, he starts through a discussion regarding Thomas’s comprehension of the scientificity of theology about revelation. Afterwards, he develops Suarez’s propositionality of the revealed truths. According to Marion, the propositionality of the revealed truths would steer us to the possibility of a scientific theology without faith because it would disconnect the apprehension (apprehensio) of things to be believed and the consent (assentio) given to proposed things. Since consent consists of faith (p.88), the propositionality of the revealed truths would permit theological thinking without it. This discussion gravitates around the notion of sufficient proposition (propositio sufficiens) that carries the revelation, that is, the sufficient proposition is the knowledge of the content of the revelation per se. Thus, the revelation could be detached from the consent of faith and assimilated into a scientific method. In the theology of Thomas, we can see a connexion between the revealed and the science. Suarez’s proposition reverses Thomas’ conception of the scientificity of theology.
Marion follows Thomas Aquinas to avoid this disconnection between the revelation and the faith caused by the sufficient proposition. We can observe at this moment how the philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion demands theological training. He understands revelation as englobing even the Church doctrine ordained in tradition, not only the Biblical Scriptures as the Protestant understanding. However, if the sufficient proposition comes only from Holy Scriptures as an original form of revelation, it will give birth to the pretended absolute primacy of the Bible as the criterion of thinking (Sola Scriptura) (p. 106). It would be an unbearable reversal of the metaphysical foundation of theology into the biblical text. Therefore, the Bible would become a collection of propositions. According to Marion, the implication of this reasoning would be a kind of scriptural fundamentalism that is present even in our days. It is an inversion of the epistemological interpretation of the revelation passing by the sufficient proposition towards the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures. Marion affirms that it will be a Biblical literalism or a Biblism (p.106). This conclusion demands a new step in the arguments to avoid this extreme. Then, Marion provides the source for theological thinking: the Magisterium of the Church.
As Marion points out about the Concile of Trent of 1546, the idea of revelation is absent, although the debate concerned the relation between tradition and Holy Scripture. Indeed, this concept will appear only in 1870 in the First Council of the Vatican. Then, the Magisterium will start discussing this concept recently through the influence of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth who identified revelation not just as a communication of knowledge but manifesting God himself by himself (Dieu lui-même par lui-même). It is this change of perspective that drives Marion to the reflection concerning the revelation. He affirms: « correctly conceive revelation demands the motivation for that and the motivation from God’s perspective. Which divine motivation could justify that God reveals himself in person? Without making this first and last question, no research concerning the concept of revelation has neither significance nor legitimacy. » (p.122,123).
Marion knows the impasse of this conclusion that is all revelation comes from somewhere else, out of this reality (d’ailleurs). And, to conceptualize it is impossible because a human conception of revelation will not embrace this reality from elsewhere (p.123). « Revelation has the concept, formally speaking, of having none. » (p.123).
Thus, revelation is in the same category as God. So both God and revelation have a half concept (quasi-concept) due to the impossibility of having a whole concept, because according to Saint Augustine if we can describe God, it is not God who reveals himself and transcends this reality. Therefore, the Magisterium played a critical role to establish by the encyclical Dei Verbum a balance between the natural and the supernatural knowledge of God. It acknowledged the transcendent character of God and revelation that metaphysics has imposed on Christian theology. So, the Magisterium has the function of making intelligible the propositional content of revelation. Then, Marion explains the origin of the doctrines of the natural and supernatural knowledge of God. He assessed the modern perspectives of revelation through intuition, imagination, will, and concept. However, this aporia has not been closed until today.
Knowing this openness of the discussion concerning revelation (both in philosophy or in Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox theology), Marion proposes in part 3 to deal with « The restitution of a theological concept ». Following the advice of the Magisterium of a more theological concept of revelation with less metaphysical influence, Marion opens this third part with a discussion about the possibilities and the impasses of a concept of revelation. Thus, he supports a more Barthian idea of revelation as the openness of God personally, not a simple communication of predications about God. It implies a relation between man and God coming from elsewhere (d’ailleurs). Then, the Word of God is a declaration (énoncement) from God to man. Marion draws from more Liberal and Neo-Orthodox traditions of Protestant theology to start constructing the understanding of revelation that he proposes. Indeed, Marion starts preparing the way for advancing his arguments. He argues for a comprehension of revelation that must be without an a priori that could establish the conditions of its possibility (this is Karl Barth’s argument). However, without the determinations of the conditions of reception (this is Rudolf Bultmann’s argument), this revelation becomes empty. Then, the inevitable reestablishment of certain conditions (this is Tillich’s, Rahner’s, and Pannenberg’s argument) (p.177) would enable a less metaphysical influence in the idea of revelation. At this point, we could wait for a resort to the theory of a saturated phenomenon, but Marion goes further and affirms that this is not the case. Indeed, the phenomenon of revelation is a kind of a given that surpasses the capacity of conceptualizing it. However, the phenomenality of revelation does not have any other law than the (erotic) logic of giving (le don), of loving (agapê). Thus, to understand revelation, we need to look for a phenomenon that gives itself through love. An infinite givenness of unconditional love which only Jesus Christ can succeed infinitely. The saturated phenomenon par excellence. Therefore, we cannot enter into the truth without love, as Saint Augustine has affirmed.
Chapter 8 brings some chief thesis of the whole book. Firstly, the figure of love phenomenalized in Jesus Christ who gives himself to death is a manifestation of the revelation in its summit. Secondly, Marion demonstrates the dematerialization of things. Through a scientific method heir of the Cartesian philosophy, modern science creates objects from things. Two competing notions of truth appear according to Marion – Alêtheia as the Heideggerian analysis has shown as something that lets itself be seen or Apocalupsis as the Judeo-Christian thinking has used as the discovery of something that was covered by something. Marion makes many distinctions regarding the usage of both terms. Thirdly, Marion discusses the priority of the logic of love to know an object through the philosophy of Pascal. However, in Descartes, this logic is inverted to the precedence of knowing the object to love it. Marion explains that it is a « rational distinction between two usages of reason following the researched purpose (the certitude of an object or the phenomenality of elsewhere (d’ailleurs)) and following the hierarchy of the modes of thinking (primacy of understanding or the primacy of will, then of love) » (p.198). Fourthly and finally, all these steps prepare the reader for the idea of anamorphosis. At this point, the French philosopher introduces it in a facile way to develop it further in the book. So anamorphosis means the decentralization of the Ego (maybe as Paul Ricœur proposed as the ego brisé?) who becomes a witness of something that cannot reduce the description of an event to a concept. This anamorphosis happens when the subject face this elsewhere reversing his intentionality.
Marion continues through a deep thought about these four theses and their implications along with the chapters of this third part of the book. However, in chapter 10 we find the real motivation to understand the effort of the author. He states « This common logic does not succeed because of «the world», that is we who boast ourselves on remaining Greeks in our understanding of logic, «seeking its wisdom» (I Corinthians 1:24), just as Aristotle sought it in being (étant) as being (étant); and above all, because we have never seriously asked ourselves why this «always searched science» also always remains «aporetic» to us; and finally, because we have never seriously questioned the evidence of our conception of wisdom, however long devalued in the science of beings, and today in the production of objects, according to a limited logic, but still supposedly obvious. » The motivation of the author is to invite us to a deep reflection about human intelligence itself that tries to filter everything according to its method and logic. Therefore, Marion proposes the notion of apocalupsis, the uncovering, that is not irrational, but it does not follow « the logic » of the Greeks that we use every day. This invitation is relevant to many discussions concerning the definition of science and what kind of science philosophy, theology would be, following the path of Dilthey, Ricœur, and Karl-Otto Apel.
To finish this third part, Marion delineates more precisely the articulation of revelation. Firstly, he proposes to understand it as uncovering. Afterwards, he presents three concepts that form this articulation: the witness, the resistance, and the paradox. If, we realize that what reveals itself surpasses our capacity of knowing. Then it is not just a relation of subject-object that takes place. However, a « witness » of this revelation can tell us what happened even though he cannot explain it precisely. There is a « resistance » before the phenomenon because it faces a paradox that pushes logic to its limits. As Marion has delineated: « The resistance comes from the fact that no one is ever immediately prepared, favourable or acquired for a Revelation, but that everyone is opposed to it, initially at least, because it redefines the entire field of possibility. » (p. 44). It is worthy to note that these three concepts concerning anamorphosis point to the notion that the phenomenon itself guides our apprehension of it by the conditions of its appearance.
The articulation of these three concepts was possible only after pointing out four tenets of the uncovering (apocalupsis), namely the epistemological heterogeneity of the thing and its sight, the ad extra phenomenological transcendence of interloqué, the possibility of refusal, and the indirect verification by transfer of visibility. These four tenets lead us to the fourth part of the book to explain how revelation phenomenalizes.
In part 4, Marion proposes a reflection about Christ as the phenomenalization of the revelation. However, we should observe that Marion does not examine Jesus as the phenomenalization of the revelation but Christ. We can perceive that Jesus was a person, but if he was the second person of the Trinity as he has pleaded, it requires some proofs and demonstrations. Thus, Marion starts this fourth part entitled « Christ as a phenomenon » with an enthralling, beautiful, and tricky analysis concerning the phenomenalization of the Greek gods. He shows us the evidence of the gods through their manifestation described by the poets. But it never occurs through a veridical body. Indeed, they assume a visible image to hide their real identity. However, this identity is not attached to the body which they have adopted. When discovered, they transform themselves into their original form to disappear. No one can see the original form of a god and survive. Therefore, there is no authentic relationship between a Greek god and man because a vis-à-vis is impossible. As Marion resumes in one sentence – « the Greek gods are not invisible, rather they are unseenable (invisables), because they have no body, no face. » (p. 280). Then, Marion elucidates why the Greek gods are not true, because they cannot happen in person from elsewhere before us. A contrario, the God of the Bible reveals himself. He can make the invisible visible. Then, Marion proponds a comparison to show the difference when he declares that « The pagan gods manifestly show themselves under their borrowing faces, because they never give themselves in person; Yahweh never manifests his glory as a phenomenon of the world, because he gives his face only in person, as his person, in his word which he speaks, keeps and gives. He gives himself in person (in his face) by giving his word. » (p.287). Therefore, the phenomenalization happens not when a person presents himself before me, because this visibility can be masked or be a lie. A person phenomenalizes his presence not only showing himself to me, but speaking to me, addressing to me. Even if this presence is not from this world (invisible), it really looks at me and it speaks to me, it concerns me. In the person of Jesus, we find this relation as the Christ who came from God.
Evidently, in the time of Jesus, there were doubts about his identity. On one side, the disciples and many others assigned to him the identity as the child of God, the promised Messiah. On the other side, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others refused this idea. The second group tried many times to prove that Jesus was not Christ. The same emerged when Paul preached the Gospel in many villages of the Roman Empire, and many intellectuals and philosophers refused to believe in a bodily resurrection, something inconceivable by Greek philosophy. However, we can see through these examples a conflict of two kinds of rationalities. A conflict of two logoi. As Marion explains, one logos from the Cross and another from the culture. Although the apparent opposition, there is no true conflict. Because the genuine difference between both logoi is the power of the logos of the Cross that is opposed to the convincing logos of the wisdom of the Greeks. The logos of the cross is empowered not only by an announcement of happiness but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Then, Marion asks the inevitable question – from where comes this power? This power comes from the shifting of the intentionality by anamorphosis, from the conversion of the heart to this logos, the sight sees the mystery uncovering (apocalupsis) itself. At this moment of the book, we can verify that Marion highlights these two existent ways of rationality that we must acknowledge because both are sources of thinking (p. 313). However, through centuries we have ignored it despite a methodic knowledge through philosophical reasoning emancipated of everything that our reasons cannot fully understand.
Marion shows that we have missed something. We have missed another way of thinking and Marion tries to retrieve it. Saint Augustine has affirmed, we do not access the truth without love and Marion wants to recuperate this love for wisdom. The mystery of Christ is phenomenalized by the incarnation of Jesus who lived a life of love giving himself entirely for his enemies – real proof of love. In the death of Jesus Christ, we can manifestly see the mystery of God who reveals himself to us.
Through chapters 13 and 14, Marion explains how we can shift from one paradigm to another. This shift of perspective works by the principle of the more mystery (mustêrion), the more revelation (apocalupsis) that recalls the phenomenological tenet that is a mark of Marion’s phenomenology « the more reduction, the more donation. » By anamorphosis, we can understand not only the phenomenon before us: the revelation itself makes us understand ourselves through the phenomenon that happens before us. The revelation of the mystery of Christ opens new rationality where the subject is decentralized as describe before to become a witness of the paradox of the limitation of our human capacity of thinking.
If we follow the reasoning of Marion about the logic of revelation in the saturated phenomenon, we have to ask what exactly the figure of Jesus Christ reveals. To answer this question, Marion will engage in a discussion about a chief doctrine in Christian thought – the Trinity. The problem of the Trinity is its dependence on metaphysical thought that was criticized through history, mainly in modern times. According to Descartes, we cannot have any certitude from this kind of theological reasoning. Theology deals with faith, and we only accept it. Therefore, the Trinity is not a case of philosophical reflection. It does not mean that the Trinity does not exist or it is something false, but we cannot prove it by reason because it does not submit itself to human rationality. Marion suggests that the problem we have to understand something like the Trinity is that we try to understand it not according to the rationality it demands, but through the rationality established by philosophy since Descartes.
Marion tries to show how the invisible can phenomenalize itself. However, it should be perceived and thought by another rationality. This rationality of the giving becomes the rationality of the revelation. As follows, part 5, « The icon of the invisible », will deal heavily with the conceptions of the Trinity. As we have mentioned at the beginning of this review, since part 4, the book becomes more theological. Hence, part 5 will plunge into a deep theological investigation concerning a controversial topic throughout the history of theology. Marion will discuss the aporias of the two models of the Trinity that we have in Christian theology. Firstly, the ontological Trinity or immanent Trinity (the Trinity in itself) and secondly, the economic Trinity (the Trinity as it reveals itself in history). Marion will show that both conceptions of the Trinity are intertwined. In effect, there is a mutual dependence of both models. Discussing this subject, Marion revisits concepts such as substance, essence, and person (ousia/substantia/essentia – hupostasis/prosopôn/persona) in dialogue with Barth, Schelling, Rahner, Bultmann, Balthasar. However, Marion does not set the limits of the debate only concerning the Father and the Son as we could expect. He brings into it the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. He intends to show the phenomenality of the Trinity by givenness through the power of transformation of the subject into a witness of this revelation from elsewhere (d’ailleurs), although (d’ailleurs) following another logic of thinking. The logic of the Holy Ghost.
In part 6, The Opening, Marion guides us through two reflections to retrieve two ideas of paramount importance to our days, namely, Being and Time, recalling Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. However, to accomplish this task, he invites us to conceive it by the perspective of anamorphosis that shifts the intentionality of the logic of a subject-object relation into the standpoint of the witness who sees the phenomenalization from elsewhere. Even though this discussion seems philosophical, the theological themes and the analysis of biblical texts are abundant. Therefore chapter 19 treats the incarnation, more precisely the kenosis theory to discuss «the real being», «the being of God» that phenomenalizes in Jesus-Christ who gives himself from elsewhere until death. The comprehension of this phenomenon inverts the logic of «the being» from the Greeks that it is something that we possess, the logic of this phenomenalization through the incarnation and the death of Jesus is one of dispossession as something that gives itself. Marion tries to save the Being from the attack that it has received from Nietzsche and others who identified the failure of Being conceived by metaphysics. As Marion puts it « this being, thus thought to be pure thinkable, no longer thinks of anything of the being, which itself reduces itself to the rank of an idol, to the waste of itself (déchet de lui-même). Thus, «the highest concept», namely the most universal, the most empty of concepts, the last breath of vanishing reality. » (p. 545). This reality « is exhausted from having wanted to seize it by apprehending it as a booty to be possessed, preserved and reproduced. »(p. 545)
Being has lost its place due to the critical thinking of modernity. Likewise, time is another theme that requests an analysis from an elsewhere (d’ailleurs) perspective. In the last chapter, Marion proposes to think about the time coming from elsewhere on the horizon of death. Death gives the limits to identify the time of now that characterizes human finitude. Moreover, Marion refers to the Last Judgement as the vertical crisis of our horizontal history to trace the diagonal of the « now » to let us live each instant of life as the last one. Jesus Christ is the model of someone who lived in such a perspective and this is the most liberating perspective for someone who wants to live forever.
To conclude this review, I would like to sketch some major points about D’ailleurs, la Révélation. Unfortunately, we were not able to probe every argumentation of the book. We tried to outline the main arguments, but Marion thinks by an association of several ideas. This manner of thinking results in a very complex and imbricated argumentation. Moreover, Marion demonstrates the need to know theology to understand philosophy, because many of the arguments he used in the book and many of his arguments are the results of theological thinking. Consequently, we can understand that the religious concept of revelation gives us the possibility to think about a form of rationality lost since The Enlightenment due to its ideal of objective knowledge ripped off all metaphysics.
Maybe the book can be understood as a response to this Cartesian philosophy that concentrates on reason despite theology. Marion shows us that both can walk together. We can find certitude in theology because there is rationality in the revelation. In other words, Marion provides us with the foundation to understand that revelation can be verified, however, through another rationality besides the scientific rationality of science and philosophy as proposed by Descartes, Kant, and Hegel et al.
Jason W. Alvis’s new book, The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn, takes insights from Heidegger’s notion of eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren and applies them to the phenomenological study of religion and religious experience. Synthesizing Heidegger’s work with French philosophers who have made influential contributions to the theological turn in phenomenology, Alvis successfully develops an inconspicuous phenomenology which challenges the privileged forms of presentation that hinder our phenomenological and theological thinking. In addition to offering a compelling chronology of the history of 20th century phenomenology and its various twists and turns, this book fruitfully teases out the paradoxical, subversive, and transformative nature of religious experience.
Is God a spectacle? Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? If phenomenology is concerned with phenomena as they appear, while the object of theology is inherently unknowable, then is a “phenomenology of religion” a contradiction in terms? The Inconspicuous God tackles these questions and more, offering a tour de force on the development of phenomenology in Husserl’s writings, Heidegger’s monumental reshaping of phenomenology, and through to the French and theological turns in the later 20th century. Central to Alvis’s project is an attempt to recover, fortify, and ultimately defend Heidegger’s notion of unscheinbarkeit (inconspicuousness) as a way to both breathe life into a phenomenological explanation of religious experience, as well as to challenge critics of phenomenology’s mingling with theology.
Chapter one brings Heidegger’s phenomenology of the inconspicuous into conversation with Jean-Luc Marion’s writings on the paradoxical nature of revelation. Challenging phenomenology’s privileging of precision and clarity, Heidegger observes that what is hidden or covered up is paradoxically integrated into what it is for a phenomenon to appear as a phenomenon. For example, if I’m walking quickly through a crowd I mustn’t focus on what stands right in front of me, for otherwise I would be overwhelmed with information and would be unable to conceive of the pathway to my destination. Instead, I must look to where I’m headed while still being aware of my surroundings enough to not bump into people. The people in the crowd thus become inconspicuously integrated into my frame of vision, presenting useful information while not being fully present to thought. This is brought to a head in Heidegger’s writings on Being—which remains hidden while always closest at hand—eventually leading to his reformulation of phenomenology as no longer loyal to Husserl’s method of unveiling phenomena clearly and distinctly, but now as deformalizing the very distinction between the veiled and the unveiled. For Heidegger, the paradoxical nature of appearance is not something for philosophy to overcome, but is rather something to recognize as irreducibly endemic to the lebenswelt itself.
For Marion, the epitome of paradox is revelation, which he understands as “a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering its own modes of givenness.” Similar to Heidegger’s insights into the paradoxical nature of appearing, Marion holds that revelation disrupts the very distinction between that which appears and that which is hidden. His work on saturated phenomena—revelation being the saturated phenomenon par excellence—is characterized by attempting to overcome the dialectic between the visible and the invisible, and as such shares Heidegger’s view that a reliance on this dialectic numbs thinking.
Alvis tries to take the work of these thinkers a step further by indicating two ways an inconspicuous revelation can avoid the dialectic between visibility and invisibility while also providing an opportunity for rich religious experience. First, revelation should be understood as intertwined within the banal fabric of everyday life, not as events that must shock and awe. “Revelation, if it truly is to be shocking, must take place in the most unexpected of places and ways: in the marginal, inconspicuous, and banal.” Second, revelation not only challenges the privileging of visibility over invisibility in presentation, but deformalizes the framing of this distinction itself.
In chapter two, Alvis takes a closer look at what Heidegger might mean by eine phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren. Drawing from the Zähringen and Parmenides seminars, Alvis attempts to systematize Heidegger’s notion of the inconspicuous and contextualize it with respect to his larger project. As opposed to being a lens through which all phenomena can be viewed or being construed as only a step in the process of phenomenalization, Alvis ultimately finds that the most fecund interpretation of this elusive topic to be that Heidegger had in mind distinct phenomena as being inconspicuous or as appearing inconspicuously. These particular phenomena require a particular phenomenology in order to make them intelligible: a phenomenology of the inconspicuous. While all phenomena can perhaps take on the character of inconspicuousness—as a builder’s hammer becomes inconspicuous in his habitual use of it—certain phenomena are more likely to appear as inconspicuous than others. Alvis’s intended contribution is to show how experiences located in the religious life can represent these distinct phenomena that have a special ability to appear inconspicuously.
Chapter three takes Michel Henry’s writings on “life” in conjunction with Heidegger’s thoughts on “world” in order to challenge the view that the world is a neutral theatre for subjective consciousness. For Heidegger, the world is neither a sum total of neutral data nor something to be overcome, but rather is something intrinsically yet mysteriously tied to the “being open” of Dasein as it lives and endures. The objects I encounter in the world do not merely convey neutral meanings available to all rational agents, but instead tell me something about myself, what I care about, my mood-as-lived, and thus my overall affective involvement in the world at large. Inconspicuousness comes into play as the oscillation between taking-an-object-as-such and taking-an-object-as-indicative-of-involvement-in-the-world. We can learn something about the world not by philosophizing in armchairs but by being affectively involved—living and dwelling—in the inconspicuous clearing opened by Dasein.
Henry takes up this thread of affectivity in his description of “life.” To be living in the world, for Henry, is to be an affective being. We come into the world only after being affectively involved with life. The world is studied by paying attention to the affective interactions that buffer the in-between spaces separating ourselves and the world. Although there is a worry that Henry reinstates a dichotomy between inside and outside—which both Heidegger and Husserl attempted to dispel—Alvis finds that he indeed successfully domesticates life in the immanent.
Combining Heidegger’s “world” with Henry’s “life,” Alvis locates the possibility of experience of the inconspicuous God in the oscillating interval between them. Jesus himself was characterized by a mode of living that was not of this world, teaching his followers the ways in which the ordinary and banal can teach us something about God. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples—in which the paradoxical in-the world/not-of-this-world relation is exemplified—teaches that a dwelling in the world allows participation with the inconspicuous God, while cutting against the invisible-visible paradigm.
Chapter four develops an inconspicuous liturgy alongside Jean-Yves Lacoste’s development of the nonexperience and nonplace of the Absolute. Alvis seeks to correct some of Lacoste’s misconstruals of Heidegger’s project and arrive at an inconspicuous liturgical reduction. For Lacoste, a liturgical reduction entails bracketing away the ‘thesis of the world’ in order to allow the presentation of God to be free from the modes of presentation that characterize our world. This allows the phenomenological appearance of God to be located in the strangely irreducible exterior of consciousness. The world must be put in suspension in order to experience the ‘nonexperience’ of the Absolute. By bracketing a totalizing thesis of the world away from the question of the experience of God, Lacoste allows God to appear as total but not as totalizing.
Alvis finds a similar theme running through Heidegger’s writings on the disclosure of Being to Dasein. Contrary to the early Greek and Husserlian notion of Being as a stable presence that can be ascertained by consciousness, Heidegger’s Being is first disclosed when one finds oneself thrown out into the world, which is the fundamental experience of Dasein. This thrown-openness which characterizes Heideggerian Being exceeds—or, rather, precedes—conscious experience, and as such it entails a fundamental relationship with the nonconscious or the nonexperienceable.
Instead of bracketing the world away completely—which destroys the way Dasein dwells as a ‘worlded’ being—Alvis suggests thinking the world as inconspicuous. Instead of looking for the Absolute by escaping from the world, we should view the world as harboring the potential nonplace and nonexperience about which Lacoste speaks. This allows the inconspicuous God to manifest in the marginalized, dormant, and inconspicuous ‘here’ within our world. The clearing or opening onto the nonplace and nonexperience of the Absolute is found in the uncanny and banal places that, inconspicuously, are most near and familiar to us. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction, therefore, suspends not the world but the spectacles of the world in favor of the Absolute’s indwelling in the inconspicuous and immanent ‘here.’
In chapter five, Alvis follows Jean-Luc Nancy’s investigations on Christian adoration in order to develop a way by which the inconspicuous God can be adored. Adoration is a reflexive activity whereby one sets apart that which is deemed worthy of praise from that which is not. But this can all too easily turn into an idolization of spectacles. What is worthy of praise and adoration, Nancy argues, is not the spectacle which is differentiated from the ordinary, but instead differentiation itself, as the abyss or opening which both appears and withdraws when we set things apart.
However, Alvis argues that a grafting of pure differentiation onto divinity can easily become an idolatrous discourse in our spectacle-dominated world. Divine differentiation, to which an inconspicuous adoration is directed, must be seamlessly incorporated into the marginal and everyday in order to avoid the idol-multiplying simulacrum of divinity that an adoration of pure differentiation creates. An inconspicuous adoration allows for the familiar and immanent around us to be an occasion for glimpsing the Absolute. We can learn something about the inconspicuous God by adoring what is forgotten and rejected as commonplace. What do we adore when we adore the inconspicuous God? Not difference-as-content but instead the non-idolatrous differentiation that overcomes the spectacle/ordinary dichotomy altogether.
Chapter six takes stock of Dominique Janicaud’s critique of Heidegger in order to pin down some of the methodological implications for how evidence should be construed in the context of an inconspicuous phenomenology of religion. A staunch critic of Heidegger, Janicaud thought his notion of unscheinbarkeit was the root of the bad theological turn in phenomenology, which was responsible for unnecessarily complicating phenomenological thinking. Heidegger eschewed Husserl’s privileging of clarity over absence, turned away from his intentionality-rich method, and integrated absence and withdrawal into the substrate of phenomenological thinking, all things Janicaud thought were poisoning phenomenology. But this is due, Alvis argues, to his misunderstanding of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit, which Janicaud seems to think means “inapparent” or “invisible.” Unscheinbarkeit instead should be translated as “inconspicuous,” “lacking in evidence,” or “lacking the ability to be spectacular.” Contra Janicaud, then, “phenomenology of religion” is not an oxymoronic attempt to solder together clarity with absence, but is instead, following Heidegger, the attempt to deformalize the very distinction between clarity and absence in order to allow religious experiences to present themselves in ways which exceed our worldly compartmentalizations.
Alvis then synthesizes the work of William Alston, Merold Westphal, and Anthony Steinbock in order to arrive at an inconspicuous construal of religious evidence. Alvis wants a description of evidence that avoids being reduced to epistemology, that avoids ushering in ontotheology, and finally that avoids ascribing legitimacy to any and all phenomena without explanation or defense. For Alvis, if “religion” refers to the being-open-to an essential relationship between Dasein and a meaning-giving potentiality; and if “experience” describes the process of grasping the particularities in consciousness which become meaningful-for-me; then “religious experience” describes the momentary latching onto intelligible data which is constitutive of the being-openness of Dasein to the meaning-giving potentiality of the Absolute.
Alvis then offers three reasons why the theme of inconspicuousness is keen to describe evidence for religious experiences construed as such. First, the religious experience is inconspicuously integrated into the whole of experience, thus being unable to be extracted from the totality of presentation. Second, religious experience isn’t straightforwardly “provable” because this would assume the Absolute can be wholly conjured when its evidence is offered. Third, the absoluteness or omnipotence of God—to which religious experience points—resists being brought into full clarity, remaining inconspicuous in our attempts to do so.
Chapter seven investigates the merits of understanding faith through the lens of inconspicuousness. By considering the thought of both Heidegger and Jean-Louis Chrétien, Alvis develops three ways the theme of forgetting supports an inconspicuous faith. First, forgetting as denoticing, which includes a double movement in which one is open to the new while simultaneously recognizing the disclosure of the new in the old that endures. Second, forgetting as counternoticing reincorporates the remembered into a novel context, which allows for a new type of knowledge to manifest. Third, forgetting as covering-over, which includes laminating over that which is remembered, not as anti-remembrance but as counter-remembrance.
Alvis argues that an inconspicuous faith must recognize the importance of forgetting which resists a totalizing grasp onto the object of faith. Instead of a faith in, we should embrace a faith with, which recognizes the interpersonal aspect to religious experience and phenomenological thinking. The inconspicuous God is the most ‘unforgettable’ because it is paradoxically that which most uniquely resists being contained within memory’s grasp, always residing in the inconspicuous peripheries of thought.
In chapter eight, Alvis investigates the aboutness of the inconspicuous God, which includes bracketing away the metaphysical questions “is there a God?” and “what is God’s essential nature” while instead focusing on the phenomenological questions “how is God given?” and “to what forms of presentation does God relate?” Alvis finds Emmanuel Levinas to be an ally in describing how God can be described in a way that doesn’t idolize incomprehensibility while also avoiding the temptation to draw God out into the full clarity of daylight. Levinas negotiates these obstacles by locating God’s incarnate infinity in the multitudinous faces of the inconspicuous others that surround us. We share ethical and social relationships with the foreign faces around us without ever grasping them directly. God’s intelligibility is thus gestured toward through our immanent relationships with others which avoid a totalizing conceptualization.
Keeping in theme with the preceding chapters, Alvis argues that inconspicuousness offers a key to subverting the dichotomies which obfuscate a description of the givenness of God. The intelligibility of God comes about not through locating God in a single pole of light/dark, clear/obscure, presence/withdrawal, but instead by recognizing the unique way in which an experience of the Absolute subverts these categories altogether. Inconspicuous phenomena instead can be given through hiding, surrogating, screening, or being present-at-hand by proxy. To recognize God as inconspicuous entails paying closer attention to the common and marginal, as opportunities for a glimpse into the Absolute which incites wonder. To seek the inconspicuous God is not to search after a hidden essence, but is instead a call to action for paying closer attention to our immanent relationships with the ordinary and with others. A phenomenology of the inconspicuous, at the very least, obliges one to rethink the temptation to quarantine God into either incomprehensibility or a blinding clarity, and instead to become open to the potential for an experience that oscillates between them.
Now I’d like return to the questions that were posed at the beginning of this review in order to expound on how they can be illuminated following some of the insights gained from Alvis’s project. Is God a spectacle? The answer is a clear no for Alvis. God understood as a spectacle—as well as the inversion of this: God understood as pure incomprehensibility—relies upon the assumption that the phenomenality of God must operate according to a dazzling clarity. Associating divinity with spectacularity is to invoke the multiple duplicities—absence/presence, clarity/withdrawal, light/dark—that facilitate an idolatrous obsession with grasping the totality of the Absolute in its infinity.
A phenomenology of the spectacle—which operates according to a privileging of presence and a repression of absence—is problematic for a number of reasons. Spectacles have a shelf life, so a philosophy that idolizes spectacularity soon becomes a discourse of addiction which eventually colonizes all facets of life. By privileging clarity and a totalizing intelligibility, a phenomenology of the spectacle teaches that what is good is that which does not resist domination and what is bad is what avoids conceptualization. This betrays an epistemological pathology that seeks certainty and absolute precision as the ends of philosophical thinking, which thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Derrida have thoroughly critiqued. Applied to theology, God becomes the greatest spectacle of all and by proxy that which is most able to be domesticated by thought. As all the great thinkers of classical theology knew to be true, a God that can be domesticated by thought is no God at all, but is only a “god”: a powerful yet finite being among beings.
Jesus himself was hardly spectacular in his life. He was a lowly Jewish preacher who disavowed the power of state and sword, lived in a shared community with his disciples, and taught pacifism and tolerance in the face of violence. Those whose faith relies primarily on the mythical spectacles associated with Jesus—miraculous healings and his resurrection—often miss the importance of his life and teachings, as Nietzsche knew to be true. To isolate the spectacle of miracles or resurrections as the core of Christian theology is to necessarily relegate Jesus’s social and political teachings to second-order phenomena, when in fact the reverse is an eminently more faithful portrayal of the Good News brought by Jesus Christ. The force of the New Testament relies not on cheap tricks but on a transformative vision about what humans can become and how they can live as oriented toward a primordial Goodness that shines forth in all things. As Nietzsche knew, an ascetic devotion to metaphysical platitudes—and we should include here the worshipping of divinity-as-spectacle—inevitably tends to turn our heads away from the banalities endemic to worldly being and toward a maddening denial of life.
Instead, the God of a phenomenology of the inconspicuous avoids the totalizing gaze of clarity, while also resisting the void of pure incomprehensibility. God ought to be understood as harboring a potential to be disclosed in the ordinary and banal, among those disavowed and disenfranchised by society. We can glimpse something of the infinite in that which is paradoxically closest to us. An inconspicuous phenomenology thus tarries with the paradoxical nature by which phenomena are disclosed to us. There is always something hidden in a phenomenon’s being presented. Contrariwise, that which most resists conceptualization can be the nearest at hand. The inconspicuous nature of divine phenomenality allows for an experience of the Absolute which paradoxically is revealed through the ordinary and every day.
Do the various themes and experiences belonging to religious life subvert or confirm a duplicitous metaphysics of absence and presence? In considering revelation, the religious lifeworld, liturgy, adoration, evidence, and faith, Alvis consistently finds that these theological themes are animated by a phenomenology that disavows the duplicitous metaphysical categorization by which one would separate phenomena into polarizing categories. The Absolute is paradoxically revealed through the ordinary. Recognizing the affective dwelling of Dasein in the lifeworld resists the polarizing oppositions of inside/outside. An inconspicuous liturgical reduction suspends the spectacles of the world in order to allow for the nonexperience of the infinite in the immanent. By lingering with the rejected and forgotten, we can cultivate an inconspicuous adoration that overcomes the clarity/withdrawal dichotomy. An inconspicuous evidence must recognize the impossibility of bringing divinity into full clarity, and instead must allow God to blend inconspicuously into the entire field of experience. Faith in the inconspicuous God is directed toward that which is unforgettable precisely because it paradoxically resists memory’s grasp. In each case, Alvis shows how invoking a polarizing metaphysics of presence and absence numbs theological thinking, and instead we should recognize the ways in which an experience of the Absolute deformalizes and thus subverts these sorts of distinctions.
Is “phenomenology of religion” an oxymoron? As already alluded to in the summary of chapter six, this phrase only becomes an oxymoron if one adopts a duplicitous metaphysical perspective whereby phenomenology is assumed to be a method of grasping objects with absolute clarity, while religion is assumed to be a discourse directed toward unknowable phenomena. Setting the stage as such certainly would cause problems for how God, as hidden or unknowable, could be brought into the light using a method that privileges clarity. However, following Heidegger, Alvis seeks to deformalize the distinction between clarity and absence that undergirds this problematic.
This confusion in terms also stems back to the misunderstanding of the meaning of Heidegger’s unscheinbarkeit. As Alvis repeatedly has shown in his book, this word does not mean “absent” or “invisible,” which Heidegger addressed early on in his career. It needs to be understood rather as that which slips conscious grasping while still presenting itself intelligibly. An inconspicuous phenomenology cuts against phenomenality itself and the conditions of experience we typically rely on, paying attention to the ways a phenomenon incorporates absence into its appearance while recognizing the way those phenomena that are ontologically furthest away are paradoxically nearest to us.
I’d like to now pivot into some more critical remarks that hopefully spark further dialogue and academic interest into this fascinating topic. One cannot help but to draw a comparison between a phenomenology of the inconspicuous and the analogia entis (analogy of being) as described in the classical Christian tradition. Both methods seek to accomplish similar goals. The phenomenology of the inconspicuous seeks to offer ways to describe religious experiences that privilege neither clarity nor absence, but instead subvert this distinction altogether. Similarly, the analogia entis seeks to offer ways to understand the relationship between God and creation, which is done by drawing an analogy between the two that eschews both equivocal and univocal predication. While phenomenologists would likely have problems with the analogia entis understood as a totalizing metaphysical system, this largely isn’t what Aquinas and others had in mind when writing about it. Instead, it was a method to temper our knowledge of God and God’s relationship to humanity and to usher in humility before that which escapes complete conceptualization yet is revealed through the immanent.
Similar to the phenomenology of the inconspicuous, the analogia entis seeks to navigate a path between a rationalist philosophy disconnected from history and tradition that seeks to bring everything out into the clarity of light and an individualistic voluntarism that can identify no rational norms nor universal intelligibilities, which ultimately culminates in a nihilistic historicism and relativism. Both also seek to show how something of the infinite Absolute can be gestured at by paying more attention to the immanent and ordinary. Erich Przywara’s celebrated book on the analogia entis endeavored to bring the ancient doctrine into conversation with 20th century phenomenology, especially Heidegger and Husserl. More attention needs to brought to the contact point between this classical doctrine of Christian theology and modern attempts to rethink religious principles in ways like Alvis does in his book.
If nothing else, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous can utilize the scholarship surrounding the analogia entis for understanding how God became understood as a spectacle in the first place, since this was not always the case. As recent commenters like Gavin Hyman have argued, God becomes associated with spectacularity once a univocity of being is adopted in order to understand the relationship between God and man. In order to counteract God or religious experience being understood as spectacles that must shock and awe us, we must learn how the move from analogy to univocity occurred in history and apply this to our current philosophies to safeguard them from hiding a repressed tendency toward idolatrous spectacularity.
In conclusion, Alvis’s book successfully accomplishes its stated goals and is a must read for those interested in both the phenomenological and theological traditions, as well as the ways in which these two traditions can benefit from dialoguing with each other. Alvis provides new avenues for thinking about God and religious precepts which pay homage to Heidegger’s innovations in phenomenology while being true to the salvific story of Jesus. Most of all, Alvis correctly identifies the problems associated with a phenomenology of religion that privileges clarity over other types of presentation. Perhaps Alvis’s greatest lesson is to teach humility before the mundane and ordinary, for the experience of God is revealed through a transformative potentiality present in those overlooked and ordinary phenomena that are closest at hand.
Alvis, Jason W. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hyman, Gavin. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris.
Przywara, Erich. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Edited by Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House.
 Jason W. Alvis. 2018. The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 33.
 Alvis, The Inconspicuous God, 49.
 Friedrich Nietzsche. 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale. New York, NY: Random House, 108.
 Erich Przywara. 2014. Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company.
 Gavin Hyman. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I. B. Tauris, 49.
Searching for a way to answer Reiner Schürmann’s question “What is to be done at the end of metaphysics?” once “being” is unhinged from God, Joeri Schrijvers discusses perspectives of several thinkers that each considered this question in their own right. His overall goal is to establish how contemporary (and secular) phenomenology of religious life points us towards something that transcends mere finitude. He builds upon his previous work, ‘Ontotheological Turnings’ (2011), in which he showed how metaphysics and its “ontotheological constitution” (Heidegger) are inevitable. In three parts he questions how contemporary thought tries to come to a metaphysics without Christianity (part 1), and whether it can position itself, as John D. Caputo tries to accomplish, as between faith and belief – as a “religion without religion” (part 2). In the third and last part he takes up Heidegger’s legacy and explores how there is something beyond a nihilistic ‘anything goes’. Here he presents what seems the main point of the whole book, namely Ludwig Binswanger’s phenomenology of love as a criticism of Heidegger’s Being and Time and as an approach in which the theological element of a phenomenological approach to life comes to light.
In this book, Schrijvers takes up an important issue that is present in a lot of contemporary thought: How are we to understand atheism – as it cannot be understood as merely a secularisation of originally theological positions. How are we to understand the theological heritage of our present ideologies? To explore this issue he spends a large part of the book reiterating debates between Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Sloterdijk, between Caputo and Martin Hägglund, and Jean-Luc Marion.
Binswanger on Love
Yet especially interesting is Schrijvers exploration of the infrequently studied work of Binswanger (1891–1966), and Schrijvers’ analysis next of Binswanger in comparison and reaction to the work of Heidegger, Levinas and Nancy. Binswanger was a Swiss psychiatrist who took on Heidegger’s claim of the coming about of being through the relationship with the finiteness of life, but was of the position that “this truth lacks love, the original being-together.” Phenomenology is taken up as not an elitist method of play, but the most faithful approach to being and experience of everyone:
“What Binswanger initiated then is not only a fundamentally egalitarian phenomenology but also and no less importantly an originary coram: an always already being turned toward otherness.” (227)
Schrijvers’ work is both rich by providing a context of contemporary thinkers such as Sloterdijk and Nancy, and their interpretations and positions on the work of Derrida, Levinas. But it seems his real contribution to that field is his inclusion of the philosophy of love as developed by Binswanger. Love is what conditions the possibility of every ontic encounter, which leads Binswanger to consider this phenomenon an example of an “ontology incarnate”. In this ontological encounter, there is a transcendentality that is presented through the passageway that starts with love. Schrijvers posits Binswanger’s theory as a way that is neither «too much nor too little» inclined towards religion – it is not dependent on religion, but does not exclude it.
Despite Schrijvers’ excellent review of contemporary thought and their dependency on canonical thinkers such as Heidegger and Derrida, in the end it is the theological aspect that remains the focus, and the relation of the phenomenology of love is looked at from the question of the task of theology.
Schrijvers looks for a philosophical approach to an ontological and metaphysical account of concepts that have been theologically understood – community, love, being. He traces the contemporary attempts to accomplish this – for instance in the work of Levinas and Nancy. His analysis of movements in the understanding of the Other are closest to the Binswanger, in that according to Schrijvers this understanding gives rise to an ‘incarnational thinking’, where the ontic experience has the capability to be understood as an incarnation of something transcendental.
What is remarkable in Schrijvers’ otherwise thorough work, is the manner in which his analysis is limited to specific authors and therefore working within assumptions that are not questioned. One of those is the reliance on the concept of the position of the Other. A central theme in his work, as in the search for an ontology of being, philosophers have focused on specific ontic encounters with the Other (the kiss, hospitality, giving) through which they attempt to formulate a post-secular understanding of transcendence in modern society. Schrijvers takes on the different positions of Levinas, Derrida and Caputo, and the way Binswanger and Heidegger are attempting to find a measure of the self and in which the phenomenological and anthropological encounter with the Other. But he never moves beyond these interpretations. For instance, he holds on to the underlying assumption of difference between self and the other. Contemporary attempts to answer his fundamental question that refuse to follow in the footsteps of Levinas and Derrida, such as in the work of Bracha Ettinger and Luce Irigaray, are not considered. Thus he falls prey to a rootedness in thinking through difference that is never questioned.
When we take his claim of a search for an answer to the question of the role of the transcendental in a post-secular world serious, we end up disappointed. Many leading contemporary thinkers who have contributed to this field, such Alain Badiou, Hans Jonas, Charles Taylor or Maurice Blanchot, remain untouched. Through this selective choice, Schrijvers takes a very specific and theology-oriented approach, and his work should therefore be seen as a perpetuation of the directions of thought laid out by a particular strand of thinkers.
When we consider his work an overview and reflection on the work of specific thinkers and on how the work of Binswanger expands their view, we can conclude Schrijvers’ work is well-written and thought provoking. He has written an important work tracing the influences and developments of a group of contemporary thinkers and their position on whether ontology can be understood without a theological origin. Is there a solution to the “uncanny poverty” that results from secularisation, and is can this solution be provided by a phenomenology as professed by Derrida, Levinas, Heidegger, and even Binswanger? Yet by putting the focus of his work on contemporary theologians and their relation to theory, his conclusions should be read as a work on these thinkers, and not as a work on the general question Schrijvers poses.
But this doesn’t mean that Schrijvers falls prey to his own remark, that much academic writing is concerned only with “a sterile piling up of publications that nobody really seems to read and that at any rate do not function as vectors for a contemporary debate or catalysts for thinking.” (3) His work is a insightful contribution to the existing literature on this contemporary topic, both as an expansion on the work of several influential thinkers, but also on their limits and their individually unique approaches to the same phenomenon – the quest for a transcendence and its relation to the ontological notion of being.
The Legacy of Phenomenology in Contemporary Thought
The strength of Schrijvers’ work lies in the careful consideration of the legacy of the phenomenological method through the approaches of Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida and the way these reverberate in what he determines to be the contemporary view, as laid out by the work of Nancy, Caputo and Binswanger. Taking phenomenology to be “a witness to the place and space where meaning originates”, he questions the way the empirical and the ontological are intertwined, and the quasi-transcendental dizziness this leads to. He contemplates the emptiness left by the ‘death of God’ and the prevailing anarchy, in which nothing is sovereign. And he concludes that it is possible to formulate a philosophy of incarnation, in which meaning arises out of matter, but that there remains a lack of meaning. “This is perhaps what needs to be done at the end of metaphysics: recognising that we know that we do not know and that we most often fail to love properly. The human being is a being in default: its ambition surpasses its ability. Coming to terms with such a being in default may be the adequate response to the end of metaphysics: it is to recognise that we all share in this default and this lack and that this “knowing of not knowing” is what turns philosophy, as the love of wisdom, into a wisdom of love: not to overcome the lack, but to love even the lack (of rationality, of ultimate meaning.” (304-305)
Thus Schrijvers follows in the footsteps of a long tradition, looking at the end of metaphysics as a call to start philosophy – as a saying born through and beginning with love, positing language as the domain in which the encounter takes place. His work can be seen as a good introduction and careful reflection on the different perspectives on this position, but his work does not leave the contours of the theory he investigates.