SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Reviewed by: Erin Plunkett (University of Hertfordshire)
Jan Patočka is not an obvious place to go looking for Christian theology. While his writings have a clear emphasis on Europe and its Greek-Christian heritage, his explicit remarks on Christianity appear most often as a matter of intellectual history, part of the attempt to understand the intellectual and spiritual framework of modernity. The philosopher is of course best known for inspiring a generation of Czech intellectuals and dissidents in his role as spokesperson for the human rights appeal Charter 77, a role which ultimately cost him his life. Drawn to this dissident legacy and to Patočka’s vision of a post-European Europe, there has been a renewed interest in Patočka among contemporary political philosophers.[i] His work as a scholar of Husserl continues to be read and appreciated in Husserlian circles. But there have been few attempts to read him as a religious or Christian thinker.
One might expect otherwise, given Patočka’s closeness to Heidegger on a number of issues, and given Heidegger’s importance to the so-called ‘theological turn’ in phenomenology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Judith Wolfe, author of Heidegger and Theology characterises this turn as ‘an attempt to responding to the call of the divine without turning God into an idol by metaphysical speculations’ (Wolfe 2014, 193-194). Beyond what Patočka has to say about Christianity explicitly, many themes in his work—sacrifice, conversion, the nothing, care for the soul—are ripe for a theological reading in the above sense. Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida’s efforts in this direction are perhaps the best known and most thought-provoking; both read Patočka’s conception of sacrifice in a religious light, as a phenomenology of the gift. Yet a religious approach to Patočka’s work has yet to be taken up in any sustained way in contemporary scholarship.
In English-language scholarship, the special issue of The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14 (2015), on ‘Religion, War, and the Crisis of Modernity’ in Patočka’s work, edited by Ludger Hagedorn and James Dodd, is the most substantial offering on Patočka’s religious import and his thinking about Christianity. Hagedorn, Martin Ritter, Eddo Evink, Nicolas De Warren, and Riccardo Paparusso have given important readings in this vein though none in a book-length study. Martin Koci’s book is therefore a welcome and important contribution to an underdeveloped field. It reflects an extensive knowledge of continental theology and offers an admirably clear view of the terrain at the present moment, as well as suggesting how Patočka may help to shape this terrain.
Patočka as Post-Christian Christian Thinker
Koci sees Patočka as anticipating the theological turn in phenomenology that began with Marion’s Dieu sans l’etre (1982). Although, in Koci’s view, Patočka’s social and political environment did not permit him to fully explore the religious resonances in his own thought, he can credibly be read as a post-secular thinker avant la lettre. Koci’s aim to establish Patočka as a serious thinker of Christianity contrasts with the standard line taken by Czech scholarship that Patočka is ‘a pure-blooded phenomenologist with no interest in theology’ (216). Those who are sceptical of a theological approach have plenty of support from Patočka’s texts, where he insists on a definite boundary between philosophical activity and religion. However, this need not prevent a reading of Patočka as a phenomenological thinker of theological import. Furthermore, there are reasons to think such an approach is not against the grain of Patočka’s own thinking. Patočka was raised by a Catholic mother and was a believer as a young man, though he grew dissatisfied with a religious framework as he began to study philosophy. He engaged seriously with numerous theological thinkers, in particular his fellow Bohemian John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), and he maintained a long friendship with the (Barthian) Protestant theologian Josef Bohumil Souček, with whom he discussed matters of faith and the meaning of Christianity. In his later years, Patočka gave lectures on theological topics to his students. Patočka’s engagement with Christianity increases in his writings from the prolific period of the 1960s and 70s, which present his mature thought.
Following Ludger Hagedorn, Koci’s study is an exercise in what he calls ‘after’ thinking, in this case, as the title suggests, thinking what Christianity might continue to mean after the death of God, and in the face of the various (related) crises of modernity. Yet, he explains, the project is not to develop a Christianity that ‘works’ in a postmodern context. It is rather to develop a Christian theology that challenges and questions the status quo and offers the possibility for transformation. ‘Christianity after Christianity does not therefore refer to the current state of religion in a post-Christian age. The “after” is not a relation to the past but an opening to the future’ (171-172). Christianity, as Koci understands it, always involves this dimension of ‘after’, since it a way of thinking that is oriented toward the not yet, harbouring the seeds of its own undoing and remaking. Within this framework, it becomes clearer how Patočka can be of value. Patočka’s own conception of history or historical life (a life in truth) involves an awareness of ‘problematicity’, a radical openness to possibility that calls for a repeated dismantling of what one takes to be solid truths.
A single sentence from Patočka’s late work Heretical Essays provides the refrain throughout Koci’s study:
By virtue of this foundation in the abysmal deepening of the soul, Christianity remains thus far the greatest, unsurpassed but also un-thought-through human outreach (vzmach, upsurge, élan) that enabled humans to struggle against decadence. (Patočka 1999, 108).
Koci attempts to make sense of this suggestive and somewhat obscure remark by exploring a number of interrelated issues in Patočka’s thought: from the crisis of modernity, issuing in nihilism or ‘decadence’ (Ch 2) to his critique of metaphysics (Ch 3), to ‘negative Platonism’ (Ch 4), to the three movements of existence (Ch 5) to ‘care for the soul’ and sacrifice (Ch 6-7). The emphasis of Koci’s analysis of the above remark falls heavily on the notion of the ‘unthought’ dimension of Christianity to which Patočka alludes, and he interprets this along the lines that Hagedorn develops in his article ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’ (2015). Quoting Hagedorn,
Christianity unthought would then indicate the maintenance of some core of Christianity even after its suspension, and through its suspension […] in the sense of metaphorically reclaiming some resurrection after the Cross. […] It is the signal for an investigation into what is left of the Christian spirit without being confessional or credulous (Hagedorn 2015, 43).
The Anselmian understanding of theology of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—in Koci’s hands becomes both 1) an affirmation that faith is ‘a way of thinking’ and 2) an explanation for why Christian theology must involve the continual questioning of itself, must relate to its own unthought. Christianity is, in this sense, a thinking of the unthought. Yet this could easily be misconstrued. Thinking the unthought does not mean ‘neutralizing’ (59) the unthought by bringing it in into the totalising framework of closed reason (the framework of modernity). Put in Heideggerian terms, the unthought signifies an openness and responsiveness to being, beyond the metaphysics of beings. Koci reads Patočka’s account of Christianity in the context of his account of the crisis of modernity and modern rationality, which has become closed in on itself (Patočka contrasts the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ soul). In Koci’s words, ‘religion breaks with the modern enclosure precisely because it allows the others, the otherwise, and, last but not least, the Other to enter the discussion’ (60).
Regarding Christianity’s ‘abysmal deepening of the soul’ Patočka places special emphasis on the soul’s ‘incommensurability with all eternal being’ (Patočka 1999, 108) because of the soul’s placement in history and its call to responsibility by virtue of being in the world (See the fifth heretical essay for this discussion). Quoting Koci, the soul becomes:
the locus of our engagement with problematicity; it is where we experience the upheaval of being-in-the-world. The soul is the organ of reflection upon the concrete historical situation into which we are thrown; it is the flexibility to think, to question, to challenge given meaning in order to search for a deeper meaning, time and again. The soul is what leads us into thinking (194).
The final word of this exposition is key. Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ struggle against decadence, against any account that would seek to settle things once and for all and close off further thinking. This is important for the overall project here, which is, in part, to use the un-thought of Christianity to challenge both philosophical and theological thinking. The proposal is that we take Christianity seriously as a way of thinking and continual questioning that can help to awaken us from our dogmatic slumber, whether the content of this dogmatism is instrumental rationality, nihilism, secularism, or traditional metaphysics.
It might be wise to pause and return again to Patočka’s claim that Christianity is the ‘greatest, unsurpassed’ movement in the fight for meaning. At first glance, this remark looks like an example of what Koci calls ‘Christian triumphalism’, proclaiming the supremacy of Christianity. Indeed, Christianity does occupy a privileged philosophical position in Patočka’s thought, for reasons that have been explained in part above. But I agree with Koci’s assessment that reading Patočka as a Christian triumphalist, as John D. Caputo does in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997), mistakes his aim altogether; he is not calling for the triumphal return of Christendom as a political power (Koci surmises that the only way Caputo could make such an error is by not having read any Patočka). On the other hand, Koci’s insistence that ‘for Patočka, Christianity is not “better” than other religions’ (193) is less convincing. He claims that:
Patočka does not understand Christianity in Hegelian terms and is far from situating Christianity on top of the religious tree. Neither does Patočka understand Christianity in Kantian terms as the highest moral call […] I see the “unsurpassed” nature of Christianity [in Patočka’s remark quoted above] as referring to a recontextualization of the soul advanced by Christianity.’ (194).
It is true that Patočka does not understand Christianity in either a Hegelian or a Kantian light; these would be grave misreadings (Caputo appears to be the main target here, since he is guilty of mistaking Patočka for a Hegelian). But it is nevertheless apparent across Patočka’s texts that Christianity is the only religion Patočka takes seriously as properly historical-philosophical; others are relegated to mythical thinking. So by Patočka’s own philosophical standards Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions, better not by virtue of its confessional content but by its contribution to being in the world. In Christianity, the soul is understood in all its problematicity and openness. This is a controversial claim, to be sure, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Patočka does in fact situate Christianity ‘on top’.
Koci argues that there are three features of Christianity that Patočka allows us to see which have serious bearing on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. First, Patočka:
reintroduces the centrality of Christianity as a new “religiosity” of thinking. In thinking, Christianity overcomes both mythos [a mythical thinking is characterised by the maintenance of life and by adherence to the past] and logos [closed rationality]. (172)
This religiosity of thinking goes in the opposite direction of a demythologization of Christianity. In Patočka’s picture, the world is reenchanted, in contrast to the disenchantment of the scientific-rationalist picture. We open ourselves to the world anew. Koci reads this shift as proposing ‘more Christianity rather than less of it […] Of course, this is not a return to anything from the past. Nonetheless, something is coming, and this something is related to Christianity’ (172).
Second, Christianity ‘becomes an existential category whose basic expression is faith as openness to the future’, ‘faith that is a radicalized, philosophical notion—the care for the soul’ (172). This rather dramatically removes the specific confessional content of Christianity, a move to which I will return below. Third, Christianity is an ‘existential thinking’ that realises itself in ‘acting and living’, living as a person who cares for the soul (173). The authenticity of such an attitude is found in the willingness to take responsibility for life through self-surrender or sacrifice, ‘in the name of a truth beyond positive contents’ (173). Patočka’s emphasis on the ‘experience’ [or activity] of sacrifice, in Koci’s reading, contrasts with the language of ‘participation’ in the absolute gift in both Derrida and Marion, which he reads as more of a conceptual schema than an existential one (see Ch 6 and 7 for an extended discussion).
Does Koci make a convincing case for the value of reading Patočka theologically? I had not been inclined to interpret Patočka along these lines prior to reading Koci’s book, but I see enormous value for Patočka scholarship in opening up this line of thought. Koci’s reading of Patočka as a post-Christian Christian thinker is creative and thought-provoking for those familiar with Patočka and for anyone interested in how to think about faith meaningfully in a contemporary postmodern context.
I have two criticisms, centred around the style of exposition in the book and the unresolved tension between the philosophical and the specifically Christian.
One feels that there is a good deal of stage setting in this work: offering context for Patočka’s thought by way of an exploration of the death of God, the crises of modernity, twentieth-century phenomenological thought, and contemporary continental theology. This is all relevant and helpful to the project of thinking about what Patočka has to offer, but the sustained engagement in the details of Patočka’s own account, especially sustained reflection on the writings that are meant to be of theological interest, is less developed. Koci is well-versed in both continental philosophy-theology (see his recent edited volume on the French philosopher Emmanuel Falque) and in Patočka’s writings, yet the former threatens to swallow up the latter in this book; it is only toward the end of Chapter 5 that Koci asks the question: ‘what is Patočka’s Christianity?’ (p 165), and only in Chapters 6 and 7, in comparisons with Derrida and Marion, that one sees a sustained attention to the details of this Christianity. What I miss in the breadth of the author’s treatment is the depth that comes from close textual analysis, especially when dealing with texts as condensed as Patočka’s.
There are perhaps unavoidable reasons for the thinness of detail in the present account of Patočka’s post-Christian Christianity. It may be the result of Patočka’s own writing, which does not lend itself well to systematic treatment, especially in the case of his writings that might be deemed of theological value, which are naturally scattered across various works. Furthermore, Patočka’s writings often have a provisional quality, not lacking in depth but with a tendency toward ellipses, presenting many rich ideas but often leaving the reader wanting further explication. Whether the root of this elliptical quality is to be found in Patočka’s philosophical commitments, in his own idiosyncrasies as a writer, or in the extremely straitened historical circumstances in which he was forced to work is a question with no definitive answer. However, this quality of Patočka’s writing is especially pronounced when he speaks about quasi-Christian themes such as sacrifice and mystery (see 233-234 for an example). Koci intelligently reads these silences—pace Kierkegaard and Derrida—as pregnant with significance. One of Koci’s examples of this is Patočka’s failure to explicitly name Christ in his writings, though he makes significant allusions to him, as in the discussion of sacrifice in the end of the 1973 Varna lecture and the reference to the Passion narrative in the ‘Four Lectures on Europe’. Koci also speculates that Patočka might well have developed his post-Christian ideas more explicitly given a different intellectual and political climate. Both assessments seem plausible to me.
That said, other than the excellent description of kenotic sacrifice in Chapter 7, the present book is rather thin on the details of what Patočka’s Christianity might look like. One example is the very truncated discussion of Christian community that ends the book. These considerations were, to me, very ripe for development, and I would have liked to hear more of Koci’s own vision of what forms a Patočkian Christian community could take, what forms of worship, what shared rituals. Koci is inspired by Patočka’s key idea of the ‘solidarity of the shaken’ from the Heretical Essays, and other scholars could certainly build on Koci’s groundwork. Naturally questions of post-Christian ritual and worship go beyond the scope of Patočka’s own writings, but Koci’s reading of Patočka raises these questions and invites imaginative responses. Such exercises in filling out Patočka’s own account may risk heresy to the master, yet without them, one is left with a portrait of Christianity that does not differ very much from a purely philosophical account: each person strives to ‘care for the soul’, living in a full awareness of the problematicity of finitude, dedicating themselves to a truth that is not embodied in anything present or actual.
Beyond Patočka’s writing style, there may be another reason for the sense of thinness I noted earlier, and this is one that Koci addresses directly, namely that Patočka’s understanding of Christianity is not a positive theology. There is no content, per se, no dogma in Patočka’s understanding of the divine or in the way of relating to the world that is taken up in an attitude of faith. While this kind of theological approach has an impressive pedigree, reading Patočka in this tradition raises the question anew of how and to what extent Patočka’s Christianity differs from a wholly philosophical account. Christianity in Patočka can easily be seen as having philosophical value, value for the question of how to orient oneself in the world, but I remain unconvinced that the lessons that Patočka draws from it are fundamentally different from the lessons he draws from Socrates. A distance from true being and a recognition of the limits of knowledge are, to Patočka’s mind, the distinctly Christian intellectual contributions. This is distinct from Platonism, to be sure, but Hannah Arendt, for one, draws the same lessons from Socrates.
Koci to his credit directly tackles the question of whether the features that he identifies as Christian in Patočka’s work may just as well be called Socratic. Patočka’s ‘care for the soul’ and ‘sacrifice’ can—and have—been read either way. On the topic of sacrifice, Koci offers a comparison of the deaths of Socrates and Christ to see which best accords with Patočka’s understanding of a sacrifice for nothing, elaborated in his 1973 lecture ‘The Dangers of Technicization in the Sciences According to E. Husserl and the Essence of Technology as Danger in M. Heidegger’ and in the Heretical Essays. In Patočka, sacrifice for nothing, as opposed to a transactional sacrifice for some specific end, is a central concept; sacrifice in the radical, non-transactional sense discloses the ontological difference, elaborated by Heidegger, between specific beings or things—taken individually or as a set—and being proper, which is no-thing and is not of the order of beings (see the postscript of Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ for the origin of this discussion). In an act of sacrifice, an individual brings this ontological difference, otherwise hidden and supressed, into view. A new understanding of truth is thus affirmed.
Construed in this way, Socrates and Christ both seem equally apt examples of a sacrifice for nothing—both die for a truth that is not obvious or present (and certainly not recognised by those around them) but which they nonetheless affirm by being willing to give their lives. Neither of these deaths could be thought of as transactional. Koci’s reading of these deaths focusses on a different feature, however. Socrates is serene, even happy in the face of death, requesting that his friends remember to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—for ridding him of the malady of life. Koci points to this attitude and to passages in the Phaedo as evidence that Socrates thought of death as a welcome release from life, that his serenity came from the certainty that he would finally be in direct contact with higher being and would be able to know what he only glimpsed in part. Christ, by contrast, utters the anguished cry ‘eli eli lama sabachthani’. While Christ accepts that he must sacrifice himself, he does not understand it. Rather than embracing death in the certain knowledge that immortality was preferable, he holds onto finitude and it remains problematic for him. Patočka quotes Christ’s final words in his ‘Four Seminars on Europe’ (Patočka, ‘Čtyři semináře k problému Evropy’, 403–404 and 412–413), suggesting his attention to this aspect of the passion narrative. Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying is, for Koci:
a scandalous provocation to shift from a simple life and its preservation to thinking about human being. It seems that herein lies the motivation behind Patočka’s plea for fighting for the Christian legacy, albeit in a deconstructed and demythologized manner, for the post-Christian world (215).
Ultimately Koci admits that one cannot decide on a purely Greek or Christian reading of sacrifice since Patočka himself tends to read Socrates through the lens of Christ and Christ through the lens of Socrates. For Koci, this ambiguity reflects a deeper one in Patočka’s work: Christian theology is a response to (Greek) philosophy, but philosophy must learn lessons from Christianity if it to break free from its own dogma. It is only in the relationship between the two that an authentic orientation to the world emerges.
I am sympathetic to the project of this book, and I am greatly attracted to ‘Patočka’s Christianity’, as Koci presents it. However, I remain unsure of the legitimacy and value of putting this account under the heading of ‘Christianity’, or even ‘post-Christian Christianity’, I freely admit that this may have more to do with my own understanding of Christianity, and it is certainly rooted in my understanding of philosophy. Koci writes in Ch 4, ‘I am convinced that Patočka invites us to think about a certain vision of philosophical faith (147).’ I agree much more readily with this formulation. I am convinced that the texts themselves authorise a ‘post-secular’ reading; it seems to me the natural result of good philosophical thinking, that, like Patočka’s, it remain open to transcendence.
Hagedorn, Ludger and Dodd, James, eds. 2015. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy XIV. Religion, War and the Crisis of Modernity: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Philosophy of Jan Patočka. London: Routledge.
Hagedorn, Ludger. 2015. ‘“Christianity Unthought”—A Reconsideration of Myth, Faith, and Historicity’. The New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 14: 31–46.
Patočka, Jan. 1999. Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. Translated by Erazim Kohák and edited by James Dodd. Chicago: Open Court.
Patočka, Jan. 2002. In Sebranné spisy Jana Patočky, vol. 3. Péče o duši, III: Kacířské eseje o filosofii dějin; Varianty a přípravné práce z let 1973–1977; Dodatky k Péči o duši I a II. Edited by Ivan Chvatík and Pavel Kouba. Prague: Oikoymenh.
Wolfe, Judith. 2014. Heidegger and Theology. London: Bloomsbury.
[i] See e.g. Meacham, Darian and Tava, Francesco, eds. 2016. Thinking after Europe: Jan Patočka and Politics. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
*For those interested in reading more of Patočka, the forthcoming Care for the Soul: Jan Patočka Selected Writings (Bloomsbury, 2022) will offer a number of his texts available in English for the first time.