Klaus Hemmerle: Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology

Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology Couverture du livre Theses Towards a Trinitarian Ontology
Klaus Hemmerle. Foreword by Dr. Rowan Williams
Angelico Press
2020
Paperback: $14.95 / Hardcover: $25
78

Reviewed by: Elisa Zocchi (University of Münster)

After many years of waiting, Klaus Hemmerle’s Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie finally finds an English translation. Written in 1975 on the occasion of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 70th birthday, this short essay is considered one of the richest expressions of Hemmerle’s thought, particularly important for the recent rebirth of interest towards trinitarian ontology. Little known in the English speaking world for many years, in recent times Hemmerle’s trinitarian reflection has in fact gained the attention of more and more scholars, as fully expressed in the conference on “New Trinitarian Ontologies”, first held in Cambridge in September 2019 and holding in 2021 its third edition. This renewed interest certainly must have played a role in the decision of translating this essay, on which scholars can finally work directly. What is, though, trinitarian ontology, and why is it so important today?

To answer this question we have to look at Hemmerle’s major inspiration in thinking trinitarian ontology, the man to which the Theses are dedicated. In the preface to the book Hemmerle introduces the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar as “an alternative to a theology with a merely anthropological approach” and, at the same time, “also an alternative to a static and deductive theological thinking”. Trinitarian ontology is for Hemmerle exactly the alternative to these two approaches to theology, so common in the second half of 20th century. Between an utterly deductive, analytic approach and one that can only stay within anthropological limits, Hemmerle recognized the necessity for post-Conciliar theology to find a third way, that same third way so often invoked by Balthasar in his many works. What was needed was not only a new way of thinking theology, but rather a new way to approach the whole of reality, of life. Hemmerle sketches this new approach in 33 theses, divided into four chapters.

In the first chapter, ontology is clearly defined as that which became superfluous, when compared to disciplines more interested with the “needs and practical consequences” of facts. This superfluity directly affects theology: the problematic Hellenization of Christianity is something that has to be fixed by “getting back behind ontology”, to a pre-metaphysical and pre-theological thinking, as suggested by Heidegger and many others. Hemmerle, although agreeing with the necessity of a “conversion”, disagrees with the method to achieve it, suggesting that the way for shaping a true ontology might come exactly from theology. In order to articulate this claim, Hemmerle starts by listing some basic elements of theology.

The first is  what he calls a “double a priori” of theology: if God has to be understood by man he has to speak a human language, but at the same time, for the human language to grasp revelation, man has to be open to God’s speaking.

Secondly, he classifies two types of theology: theology of translation and theology of witness. In the first, the content of revelation is “translated” thanks to the use of “a human, historical, philosophically pre-formed mode of questioning and understanding” (18); this is the case of Aquina’s use of Aristotelian thinking. Theology of witness instead, exemplified by Bonaventure, implies man’s abandonment to “God’s radical beginning”, acquiring new “possibilities of thinking and speaking” (18).

In both theologies the double a priori comes into play, as it did in the conciliar formulations of Christological and Trinitarian dogmas. As an example Hemmerle brings the so called Hellenization of Christianity: if it is true that Christianity took its shape on a Greek background, it is also true that it maintains its originality, resisting a complete submission to Greek categories and developing fundamental concepts not previously available, like the doctrine of the Trinity. Among these doctrines developed by theology however we do not find, for Hemmerle, a fully comprehensive meaning of Being: there is no proper Christian Ontology, and Christianity was always “a guest among multiple philosophical projects and systems, the sources of whose formation lay elsewhere” (21). This deficiency and lack of a common ground became even more profound in the modern time, with the multiplying of approaches and models.

In the second chapter Hemmerle delves into the characteristic that a Christian ontology should have: as per the title of the chapter, he opens an “Entry into the Distinctively Christian Element”. To understand what is distinctively Christian Hemmerle asks the core question of the book: “in what way are the fundamental human experiences and fundamental understanding of God, the world, and human beings altered when faith in Jesus Christ breaks in upon them?” (23).

To find an answer Hemmerle introduces two categories. First, the phenomenon of religion, i.e. the experience of displacement: the comprehension of reality is not anymore from the point of view of the human subject, but rather from the point of view of an Other, an Other upon which man and the world “are most intimately dependent” (24). Secondly, the experience of the Logos, of the inter-connectedness of every aspect of reality graspable by man.

Hemmerle applies these two categories to the Ancient Covenant, from which comes a first answer to the question on the proprium of Christianity; in it these two categories are included but somehow overcome, surpassed. In the Old Testament we discover that the experience of displacement is that of an Other who, although transcendent, “stands on the side of human beings” (28) and provokes a change in every aspect of life; the experience of the Logos is seen in the fact that God is transcendent but not in competition with human wisdom.

With the New Covenant the question finds a definitive, more radical answer: as for the phenomenon of religion, man is called to put aside the old age and exchange it for a new one, the age of Christ; as for the experience of the Logos, God enters now physically in history, in a specific time and space. God is not anymore playing a role in history with sporadic intervention and episodic revelations; with Christ, “our history becomes His epiphany”, “history becomes the word spoken by the God who is revealed in it” (30). This is the core of what is precisely Christian, what Hemmerle has been guiding us to: in Jesus Christ, “God shares all of what is ours and all of what is His”. In Jesus, God comes into history and yet remains above history. Christianity’s uniqueness is therefore the experience of “a God above us who encounters and answers the God who is among us”: transcendence and immanence are maintained in a unique tension,  they are united by unconditional love – the Holy Spirit. What is uniquely Christian is, therefore, the trinitarian doctrine experienced by men when they believe in Jesus Christ; if God is threefold, human thinking experiences a radical conversion [Umkehrung]. It will not be enough to simply reformulate a previous ontology, and a new ontology is needed – indeed, a trinitarian ontology, that can no longer take Being for self-subsistence or independent. Hemmerle is clear: if God is Trinity, the whole structure of being is involved.

The third chapter is the most intense and complex one: here Hemmerle lays the foundations of a new trinitarian ontology. First of all, Hemmerle makes it clear that the Trinity is not a new formal principle from which everything is logically inferred, in Aristotelian fashion. Thinking the Trinity is rather the beginning of a phenomenology in which everything is interpreted from the standpoint of the core element of the Trinity itself: the act of self-giving. What remains, for Hemmerle, is not a speculative principle, but the element that draws the Trinity together: love, agape. This love is what  “articulates the original self-showing of Being and beings” (36). In this phenomenology the main role is played by the verb rather than the noun: an object can for Hemmerle be understood only in its action, which is a “communication, a delimitation, and an adaptation to an overarching context” (38). The unity of each object is only preserved in the process, which involves a plural origination, as Hemmerle explains using the example of language. Each word has three origins that “spring up mutually: I, language, and you”. Exemplar are also cases like identity and time: they all remain themselves exactly in virtue of their process of becoming “more”. Their internal unity comes from their plural origination. This new approach to the object, from the standpoint of process and of the plural origination, causes a radical revolution in our way of thinking.

Hemmerle faces then the foreseeable objection: what about the ineliminable resistance of things? This objection would subsist for those philosophies in which process and plural origination are taken as principles of deduction, blocks of a system. But in Hemmerle’s trinitarian theology the thing plays a different role, “giving itself over into what takes place in self-giving” (43). Self-giving is therefore the pivotal element of this ontology, not as an added element to an object, but as the fundamental structure that allows an object to be what it is. Only by bringing itself to the other does something arrive at itself; Hemmerle gets to the point of saying that “substance comes to transubstantiation, to communion” (44). The main examples are once again given by language (“when I say something, I bring it to light in what is proper to it”, 46) and thought (“when something gives itself to be thought, it comes into its own brightness”, 45). In the same way, Being “is” only as the fulfillment of passing-over, of communion of self-giving, only as for-each-other. Everything finds itself in the midst of a play with multiple origins: the play between being, thinking, and speaking; everything owes its existence to the game, and yet we are responsible for our actions and answers.

Hemmerle seems then to acknowledge that in multiple occasions the philosophical tradition has seen attempts to modify and replace the classic ontology of the static substance: Aquina’s analogy, Bonaventure’s ars aeterna, Nicholas of Cusa’s mereology, Descartes’ system, Schelling’s late philosophy, the eucharistic understanding of the world of Baader, Rosenzweig’s reflection about language, Heidegger’s Being and Time, Rombach’s structural ontology. These, however, were all approaches “from below”, and could not reach the very depth of “the threefold mystery of God, which is revealed to us in faith” (50). It becomes clear that for Hemmerle a new ontology can only be based on revelation, the very mystery of self-giving itself. This has its ground in Jesus’s death and resurrection, a gift that transformed the whole world. In this way, the analogy of Being becomes the analogy of the Trinity: the way to fulfillment is nothing else than entering into relatedness.

Finally, Hemmerle analyses the “levels of trinitarian happening”. The access is given by the event of the economic trinity, which is not an external supplement to the internal being of God, but rather his deepest mystery: the economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity. This way, the economy of creation is included in the trinitarian life, as an anticipation of the trinitarian fulfillment, and the believers live their life in the awareness of being-in-Christ. This originates a new way of living, dictated by the very ethos of Jesus’s relation to the Father.

The fourth chapter is an appendix, “Consequences of a Trinitarian Ontology”. Hemmerle draws three types of consequences: philosophical, theological, and practical. In the end however, he states that these three levels are deeply united.

The philosophical and theological consequences concern especially the unity of freedom and necessity; in God, necessity is an interpretation of freedom. Jesus’s freedom to obey the Father is the most incomprehensible act of self-giving, and therefore the moment where God is most himself. As for the practical consequences (“for how we think, speak, and exist”), Hemmerle insists strongly on the idea that every individual performance is deeply united with the performance of partners: society is not utterly the sum of individuals, but a unity, a single common life in which every person is “the point of departure, the goal and the middle of a movement” (63).

When talking of society, Hemmerle claims that trinitarian ontology allows one to step beyond the profound modern separation of theory and praxis – its contemplative spirituality naturally points out towards “the We”, towards the others. The most profound moment of contemplation is in fact the Cross, which also coincides with the greatest act of self-giving, the most revealing and opening instant. For this reason, it is a spirituality that in being contemplative is also active, a communitarian spirituality of service, and so is the theology that results from this new ontology: both traditional and contemporary, communitarian and of service.

The first question that emerges when closing this book is very simple: are these 33 theses enough to shape the Christian philosophy that Hemmerle wishes for, and to present the new life generated by discovering the centrality of the trinitarian self-giving?

The answer has to be negative: it is Hemmerle himself that defines this work “fragmentary and incompletely demonstrated in its argumentations and conclusions” (8). Multiple thinkers are now continuing the work of Hemmerle; as for the foundational work, we could say much lies already in Balthasar’s trinitarian thought, as Hemmerle himself acknowledges. What do we gain, then, in engaging a detailed reading of this work, rather than a more inclusive manual on the discipline? What Hemmerle is uniquely able to express in this short essay is more and more necessary, with the multiplying of voices talking about trinitarian ontology: a focus precisely on what is at stake. Why is a new way of thinking ontology so important? And why do we need to re-think Being not merely in light of the categories of relationship (as many thinkers in the last centuries did not fail to notice), but first and foremost in light of the trinitarian relationship?

From Heidegger onwards, it has become normal to think of ontology as something to reshape, something “gone wrong”. Heidegger was certainly an important influence, but Hemmerle takes a position that is the complete opposite to the Heideggerian accusation of ontotheology and of the forgetfulness of the ontological difference. Trinitarian ontology is precisely about the non-difference of being and beings. This non-difference is not identity, but rather the being-in-God of every being. Every being is originated from the intra-trinitarian love. This love, as Balthasar will later say, is not the absolute Good beyond being, but rather the depth, height, length and breadth of being itself. Trinitarian ontology does not therefore imply a triadic structure of reality, as one might think, but rather that the totality of reality has its origin in the self-giving of the trinitarian love. This movement of self-giving is therefore the rhythm of being, without turning movement into a principle: the only principle is agape. This makes it clear that what is at stake, for Hemmerle, is not only the possibility of a Christian philosophy, that has so vehemently been denied in the first half of the century by many philosophers, but also life itself, our way of living. Communal life is the main place where trinitarian life can be experienced in this world, to the point that Hemmerle claims that “the sky is among us”, as per the title of another of his works (Der Himmel ist zwischen uns). A Christian ontology does not merely change the way we think, but is a true revolution of the way we live. “It is play and process that once more interest human beings, at the end of modern age, and at the end of objective metaphysics: life, for example, freedom, meaning. Such processes are about me – but not about me alone; are about the whole – but not about a whole from which I can abstract myself, are about society – but about a society which may not once more become a Subject devouring the individual” (42). For Hemmerle it is clear that a trinitarian God changes our entire way of living, because our history is His history, so that we see and form everything in the image of the Trinity.

This takes a concrete shape in the experience of the Focolare Movement, whose history is profoundly intertwined with the life and thought of Klaus Hemmerle. The profound unity of contemplation and spirituality is just one reflection of the central role played by the notion of unity for the Focolare charisma. It is not of minor importance to notice how the two men involved in the foundation of a trinitarian ontology, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Klaus Hemmerle, had a profound friendship with two mystics: respectively, Adrienne von Speyr and Chiara Lubich. Lubich’s mystical experience of the unitive presence of Divine Love influenced Hemmerle from 1958, date of their first meeting, and Hemmerle will claim that “Chiara has conveyed to us a school of life. This school of life, however, is also a school for theology. The result is not so much an improvement of theology, as a living theology that originates from revelation”[1]. This is a pivotal element of Hemmerle’s thought: there is no real barrier between the mystical experience and the theological reflection, between experience and thought, between philosophy and theology. This can happen because all these elements are originated by the one and only principle at the core of the Trinity, the act of self-giving.

This also answers the second question that can emerge while engaging this reading: how is this ontology any different from the many “relational ontologies” blossomed in the 20th century, ontologies that see the “other” as the pivotal element? What is the difference between a relational ontology and a trinitarian ontology, and why shouldn’t we just talk of relation?

Hemmerle is clear that relationship and process are not to become “some new principle from which everything would once again be inferred in a lonely deduction. Only one thing remains: active participation in that movement which agape itself is” (35). Against the deductive method, Hemmerle shapes an ontology which does not begin from invariance, but from self-giving, and not every relation is a place of self-giving. Ontology can only start from the most original self-giving, that of the Trinity itself – from the kenotic event intended in its radical sense, thus not limited to the Cross but including the whole self-giving of the Trinity. That being is self-giving cannot in fact be disclosed from below, claims Hemmerle: it needs a revelation. Ontology needs therefore to be trinitarian, and not simply relational, because, to quote Balthasar, “only love is [a] credible” answer to the question on Being.

Hemmerle might not be particularly original in some of his reflections ­– the description of the process of the world as a play, or the idea of a  reciprocity without beginning, had already been described by the first volume of Balthasar’s Theo-Drama a few years before. Hemmerle himself mentions in the Theses the many names that attempted a reflection on trinitarian ontology. And yet, the sharp and clear focus on “what is distinctively Christian” is unique of this work. The major strength of this essay is the clarity with which Hemmerle expresses the need for his time (and, we could say, for our times) of a renewal of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Ontology is for him the fundamental place where to set this renewal into movement. Not always as clear is however the way in which this capsizing of ontology has to take place – these Theses are the first stone of a project that Hemmerle himself didn’t pursue, at least not in a clearly systematic form. Hemmerle is in fact not exhaustive in his arguments – Balthasar rightly describes the Theses as “highly concentrated and aphoristic”. Especially the third chapter, where Hemmerle exposes the core of his trinitarian ontology, is particularly intense and not always easy to follow. This is however not to be seen only as a flaw of the work itself. On the contrary, it becomes one of its major virtues: it allows scholars, as it did in recent years, to draw from it in order to open new paths, as witnessed by the many conferences and publications on trinitarian ontology. These are not limited to scholars belonging to the Focolare movement, and involve thinkers of multiple origins and backgrounds. Examples are to be found in the reflections of Thomas Norris in Ireland and Klaus Kienzle in Germany, but especially in Italy, where Hemmerle has been known and translated already in 1986 and where he is at the center of the speculative work of the Sophia Institute of Loppiano, especially with the work of Piero Coda. Coda draws from Hemmerle and expands on the theological elements of his reflections, those that did not receive in-depth analysis in the Theses; central in Coda’s reflection is the crucified and abandoned Christ and the role of “non-being” within the Trinity. Italy hosts also the fruitful  reflection of Giulio Maspero, who thinks trinitarian ontology especially in relation to the Church Fathers. The availability of Hemmerle’s texts in the Italian language (together with the influence of Chiara Lubich’s movement) certainly plays a pivotal role in the abundance of reflections on trinitarian ontology in Italy, and shows how precious this English translation can be for future outcomes in the English speaking theological and philosophical community. The recent increase in interest in trinitarian ontology functions itself as a sign that Hemmerle’s intuitions are correct and require time and attention to bare their fruits. The conference on New Trinitarian Ontologies, which will see in 2021 its third edition, is enriched by contributions that stretch from ancient to modern philosophy and theology, but also to economic, political, and ecological ontologies. This is the power of this work, defined by Elmar Salmann as the most important book published in the post-conciliar years: not only are Hemmerle’s Theses potentially able to open multiple paths and include a variety of Denkformen, enriching therefore the contemporary debate on the relation between theology and philosophy; they also invite theology to draw from metaphysics and ontology, after the long lasting prevalence of a stale analytic approach. Trinitarian ontology is certainly open to criticisms, more or less original – those same criticisms moved to almost every theory based on an analogical approach. Similarly to Balthasar however, Hemmerle’s strength is to insert the analogical approach into a bigger picture, that of the profound unity of metaphysics and mystic, of thought and prayer. Lived in this profoundly symphonic unity, metaphysics is not at the end, and Hemmerle’s Theses can be one of the starting blocks for its new beginning.


[1] Klaus Hemmerle, “Tell Me about Your God”, Being One 1 (1996): 20.

Jean-Luc Marion: Paroles données, Éditions du Cerf, 2021

Paroles données Couverture du livre Paroles données
Jean-Luc Marion. Edited by Mathias Goy
Éditions du Cerf
2021
Paperback 29,00 €
440

Theodore George, Gert-Jan van der Heiden (Eds.): The Gadamerian Mind, Routledge, 2021

The Gadamerian Mind Couverture du livre The Gadamerian Mind
Routledge Philosophical Minds
Theodore George, Gert-Jan van der Heiden (Eds.)
Routledge
2021
Hardback £190.00
616

Martin Koci, Jason Alvis (Eds.): Transforming the Theological Turn: Phenomenology with Emmanuel Falque

Transforming the Theological Turn: Phenomenology with Emmanuel Falque Couverture du livre Transforming the Theological Turn: Phenomenology with Emmanuel Falque
Reframing Continental Philosophy of Religion
Martin Koci and Jason Alvis (Eds.)
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
2020
Hardback $130.00 • £100.00
264

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Catholic University of Paris)

Crossing without Confusing

 

During my first forays into so-called ‘continental philosophy of religion’, I mostly knew Emmanuel Falque as the author of a series of extraordinarily insightful essays on the major figures of contemporary French phenomenology, but never seriously explored his own original phenomenological work. After all, as a rare atheist philosopher active in this field who more or less shares Dominique Janicaud’s diagnosis of it, Falque’s work initially struck me as exacerbating the worst tendencies of that of Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Henry: a theologisation of phenomenology by way of a too close reconciliation of philosophy and theology that is not only unsatisfying philosophically but equally remains naïve theologically, thus disappointing both philosophers and theologians. This judgement on my part, however, was little more than a prejudice based on the back covers of Falque’s books—which, admittedly, carry extremely theological titles that might make even the most open-minded atheist philosopher suspicious—and some initial English-language scholarly discussion of their contents. Take for example the chapter on Falque in Christina Gschwandtner’s Postmodern Apologetics—for a while the only comprehensive overview available in English—, which initially describes him as follows: “He has degrees in both philosophy and theology and merges the two disciplines far more fully than any of the other thinkers, occasionally even challenging the boundaries between these subject matters as unnecessary and superficial.”[1] It was only after seeing Falque speak in person that I was tempted to start reading his work more thoroughly, until I realised that Gschwandtner’s description seriously mischaracterised it. Indeed, I attended a conference on continental philosophy of religion at which both Falque and Marion, his former doctoral supervisor, delivered keynote addresses. Teacher and student made very different impressions, however. Marion addressed a crowded auditorium but simply repeated one of his Gifford lectures, a text that had been published a few years earlier and with which—presumably—most if not all attendants were therefore already familiar. Far fewer people showed up for Falque’s lecture early the next morning, but he displayed so much energy and enthusiasm that I myself certainly left feeling much more inspired than I had done the night before. I wanted to learn more about this man’s work and immediately ordered his Triduum philosophique upon my return home. What I found there was a philosophy that, whilst certainly making liberal use of theology, at no point risked merging the two but instead employed both disciplines separately and with an equal degree of sophistication—something that is both hard to do as an author and difficult to understand as a reader.

Having now come to appreciate Falque as one of the most interesting and audacious French philosophers working today, I am suitably embarrassed by my previous misconceptions. I am also equally excited by this first edited volume dedicated to his work in English, as it may help others avoid making the mistakes I did. Reassuringly, the editors acknowledge that we must be careful when reading Falque, for otherwise we might easily arrive at “the misunderstanding that Falque is the direct successor of the theological turn, and a cursory reading of Falque’s work can lend to the impression that he seeks an even deeper radicalization and abrupt intrusion of the theological into the philosophical. Even worse, one might think he intends to exact theological imperialism over philosophy, ultimately reducing any phenomenologically gained insights to ready-made theological truths” (xxi). To remedy this misunderstanding, the essays included in the book all confront Falque’s method, as set out in his Crossing the Rubicon, from a variety of perspectives. This method can be summarised using two of Falque’s favourite phrases. First, there is ‘crossing the Rubicon’, which becomes the title of Falque’s self-proclaimed ‘discourse on method’ and serves to indicate the act by which the philosopher transgresses the boundaries of their own field in order to set foot on that of theology and vice versa, leaving them transformed. Second, there is Falque’s ‘principle of proportionality’, which states that ‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’, and according to which the two disciplines must thus be practiced together but without losing their respective rigour. The summary of this framework provided by the editors in their introduction is perhaps the clearest one available in the scholarly literature so far:

Nevertheless, in the context of the discourse on method, it must be stated clearly that the joint practice of theology and philosophy does not result in their fusion, which necessarily would result (and indeed already has) in confusion. The point in the making is that in crossing the Rubicon one is allowed to pass onto the other bank, look around, and then come back home before getting lost in its waters. In this sense, the boundaries are not abolished (Lacoste) or confused (as Falque’s critics interpret his work) but transformed. (xxiii)

Indeed, what perhaps causes the misunderstandings surrounding Falque’s method is that the act of returning to one’s proper bank, as well as avoiding drowning in the Rubicon’s perilous waters, are too often neglected in favour of that initial crossing: even in the transformation (i.e., the crossing) of one by the other, the distinction (i.e., the boundary) is maintained. After all, without acknowledging the reality of the boundary and confirming its legitimacy, there can be no crossing to speak of. We may then summarise the task this volume sets itself as facilitating crossing without confusing: to show how Emmanuel Falque, as a philosopher, crosses the disciplinary boundary between philosophy and theology, without ever confusing them and thus ceasing to be a philosopher. The difficulty of this enterprise, both for Falque to execute rigorously and for the book to document adequately, should not be underestimated.

Indeed, the difficulty is attested to by the volume itself: several of its contributors offer wholly contradictory interpretations of Falque, with the ‘crossing’ sometimes undeniably becoming ‘confusing’. However, given that this volume only constitutes the opening salvo for the many battles in the English-language reception of Falque that are sure to follow, the diversity of opinion on offer here is to be expected and indeed entirely welcome. Taken together, these essays provide a fascinating and varied overview of the many ways in which Falque’s method can reinvigorate the debate concerning the relationship between theology and philosophy. The book itself is divided in three parts: first, critical interpretations of Falque; second, comparisons between him and other philosophers (unfortunately somewhat limited to French intellectual sphere, with authors like Blondel, Ricœur and Lévinas); and, finally, constructive engagements with his work. The book also includes an essay by Falque that probably constitutes the most succinct statement of his method, as well as an afterword by him.

It is the question of that method, of crossing from one territory to another rather than confusing them, that runs through the entirety of the book. Therefore, that question will also be my focus here, particularly how it makes various contributors claim mutually contradictory interpretations of Falque and occasionally confuse the territories he wants to keep separate. Before exploring these confusions and contradictions, however, it would be remiss of me not to note that this volume also has plenty of other criticisms and developments of Falque to offer that do not primarily concern his method. There is, for example, Bruce Ellis Benson’s important observation that Falque’s “account fundamentally overlooks a concept that he mentions more than once but never analyzes: namely, what ‘religion’ is” (33). Indeed, Falque talks a lot about ‘religion’, but in doing so virtually always means something entirely different: namely, Christianity if not simply Roman Catholicism. He may provide a philosophy of Christianity (e.g., philosophical treatments of Christian concepts like the Passion, Resurrection and Eucharist), but in absolutely no way does he provide a philosophy of religion: i.e., an analysis of the troubled notion of the ‘essence of religion’, or any kind of discourse that also concerns other world-religions. To be fair to him, this problem is one of the field of ‘continental philosophy of religion’ as whole: it talks a lot about Christian theological concepts, but very little about those of other religious traditions or indeed about religion as such. Perhaps less excusable is what Benson calls Falque’s “religious homogeneity,” even when dealing with Christianity: “he shows remarkably little concern for the multiplicity that is found in world Christianity” (27). Of course, Falque has read the major 20th century German theologians, but that is where his engagement with anything outside Catholicism stops. Now, we shouldn’t expect a French philosopher to engage with, say, Asian or American Pentecostalism; but Christian thought in Europe—even in France—nevertheless has an abundance of sources to draw on beyond Catholicism and specifically German Lutheranism. The most glaring lacuna in Falque’s bibliography is perhaps the rich Orthodox theological traditions, including the Russian émigré theologians who often wrote in French (e.g., Lossky, Bulgakov, Florovsky, Berdyaev)—though the present volume remedies this oversight somewhat. A theologian can afford to dwell within a particular confessional framework when discussing Christian concepts since his labours serve a particular church; an author who claims to be philosophe avant tout and wants to address a larger audience, however, cannot.

Two more constructive contributions that do not directly concern Falque’s account of the relationship between philosophy and theology but are noteworthy nevertheless are those by William Connelly and Andrew Sackin-Poll respectively, for they show how phenomenological philosophy borders not just on theology but on other disciplines as well. Connelly situates Falque’s work at the confluence of phenomenology and non-phenomenology, impressively developing this notion by way of Merleau-Ponty and Blondel. In a complex and sophisticated essay, Sackin-Poll meanwhile explores the relation between phenomenology and metaphysics from a trinitarian perspective. It strikes me that Sackin-Poll’s essay could very well form a somewhat unexpected but nevertheless very welcome bridge between the sometimes excessively French preoccupations of this volume and recent developments in Anglo-American theology.

The volume’s chief concern, however, is Falque’s account of the relationship between philosophy and theology: what it means to ‘cross the Rubicon’ between both disciplines whereby one is transformed by the other without them ever being confused with it. The various contributions offer equally varying interpretations of this notion, resulting in some contributors directly contradicting others (which the editors are clearly aware of and exploit in their organisation of the material). This variety of opinion illustrates the difficulty of rigorously ‘crossing the Rubicon’, of jointly practicing philosophy and theology without ever confusing them. A source of the confusion and contradiction may be the liberal use of metaphor made throughout the volume to interpret the central metaphor used by Falque (i.e., ‘crossing the Rubicon’). In his contribution, for example, William Woody asks whether this crossing must be understood as ‘foreign exchange’ or ‘hostile incursion’: even though it uses a military metaphor, Woody asks, doesn’t “Falque’s account blithely ignore an essential—and perhaps necessary and productive—hostility between philosophy and theology?” (52). He explains:

Despite this, is there not a necessary hostility—or perhaps a less charged, beneficial antagonism—that we should maintain between theology and philosophy? Crossing the Rubicon provides an exemplary model that enables dialogue across difference, though such a movement also exposes a necessary inner tension that appears irresolvable in the relationship between philosophy and theology—a mutual necessity but also a mutual hostility or antagonism, or (at best) a mutual opposition and critique. I fear that, in some cases, Falque advocates an overly optimistic view of the potential for this relationship. (59)

Nevertheless, Woody does not give any examples of cases that concern him, sticking instead to the analysis of Falque’s method as Crossing the Rubicon states it generally and abstractly—often, he notes correctly, through various curious uses of metaphor. He then concludes with a metaphor of his own, reinterpreting Falque’s: “Without antagonism and hostility in the relationship, perhaps Falque advocates not so much crossing the Rubicon as the more docile exchange of crossing the Schengen zone” (60).

It is true that we Europeans have grown accustomed to our ability to cross borders easily, perhaps even blithely. Equally, ancient hostilities between European nations have ceased. Arguably, these two developments went hand in hand. However, to say that with them all antagonism has also disappeared—whether on the metaphorical level (between European nations) or as concerns the topic at hand (between philosophy and theology in Falque’s work)—could not be more wrong. Indeed, just like there remains plenty of antagonism amongst European nations, there very much is a necessary antagonism between philosophy and theology in the substantive parts of Falque’s work (which, after all, Crossing the Rubicon precisely looks back on methodologically). In his critique of Henry’s phenomenology of incarnation, for example, Falque questions the too close reconciliation of what theology and French phenomenology both have separately come to call ‘flesh’: sarx in John or caro in Tertullian, he argues vigorously, does not equal Leib in Husserl or chair in Henry. In this respect, there is a perfectly obvious and necessary antagonism between philosophy and theology, one that is precisely productive of what Falque calls the ‘backlash’ of theology on phenomenology and comprises the substance of his own philosophical contribution. This backlash, the result of an antagonism between the two disciplines, is the site where the ‘crossing’ takes place: the transformation of phenomenology in its encounter with theology. Moreover, Falque has explicitly thematised this antagonism—by way of another titular metaphor—in his The Loving Struggle: just like there continues to be strife amongst European nations, philosophy and theology remain mutual antagonists in their eternal struggle with one another; the point Falque wants to make, however, is that this antagonism never reaches the level of hostility. “We deceive ourselves,” he explains, “if we see this struggle as a war. Here, the opposition of contenders (agon) characterizes the conflict (polemos), such that the ‘loving struggle’ among thinkers consists of more than a clash of one ‘force against another force’ aimed at the obliteration of one by the other. (…) Instead, I envision a quasi-athletic clash (lutte) wherein the partners are adversaries only in order to measure themselves against one another and thereby surpass themselves.”[2] For example, precisely in struggling with the theological notions of sarx and caro, will phenomenology truly come to appreciate the distinctly philosophical meaning of what it calls chair—i.e., one that is different from the theological one and therefore cannot be confused with it. In short, there obviously is antagonism between philosophy and theology, but Falque wants to show us how this antagonism should be understood, not as the hostilities of war, but as the loving struggle of an intellectual dialogue in which mutual transformation can take place: according to the principle of proportionality (‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’), it is not that philosophy becomes more theological by actually theologising more; rather, in exploring the other bank of the Rubicon, philosophy’s very philosophising is improved (i.e., becomes more rigorously philosophical).

Fortunately, Tamsin Jones sets the record straight with an extremely clear essay that immediately follows Woody’s and eloquently captures Falque’s approach as follows:

Falque is interested in encounter, not conversion. Indeed, this is one of the markers which, arguably, separates him from a previous generation of French phenomenologists who, by refusing the distance between the two disciplines and claiming certain topics (such as revelation, liturgy, Eucharist) as properly philosophical, also were less explicit about the confessional origin of those topics. Distinctly, Falque has no need to ‘baptize’ philosophers like Badiou, Franck, and Nancy, who might, nevertheless, make use of theology in interesting ways. Despite the fact that Falque employs a militaristic metaphor—Caesar’s crossing is a movement into battle—(…) the ensuing encounter (…) need not result in ‘crushing’ one’s foe, but instead could be understood as an athletic contest in which one encounters an equal adversary against which to test, exercise, and thus strengthen one’s own abilities. (64)

Indeed, of all the contributions included here, Jones’ states Falque’s method most clearly and succinctly as intended to “at once, uphold and traverse the distance between the two disciplines” (63) (i.e., ‘crossing without confusing’). Indeed, she is so succinct when setting out Falque’s framework that she manages to have sufficient space left to use it for some interesting reflections on the institutional structures within which the relevant disciplines are practiced in North America.

In one of the most eloquent contributions to the edited volume, Barnabas Aspray then offers a final metaphor for the interpretation of Falque’s original one:

However, it would be a gross misunderstanding of Falque’s project to consider it as one of confusion. Falque is not a transgressor of boundaries but a marriage counselor; he calls for us to overcome the divorce between philosophy and theology. His aim is to break down the artificial barrier of separation between the disciplines that was erected in twentieth-century France. Just as a marriage makes ‘one flesh’ out of two individuals without destroying the uniqueness of each, so Falque’s reuniting of philosophy and theology does not homogenize them but rather restores their right mutual relation. (163)

Aspray writes well and develops the metaphor beautifully, so it is not without regret that I cannot help but feel that thinking of Falque as a marriage counsellor is seriously flawed. Indeed, though Aspray clearly knows that on Falque’s account “each discipline is transformed by the other without losing its core identity or its distinctive contribution” (164), I wonder if his own essay does not inadvertently end up confusing them after all due to this metaphor.

The metaphor of a marriage counsellor as Aspray presents it can be questioned from several perspectives. First of all, it strikes me as odd to think of an author who puts so much emphasis on the gesture of ‘crossing’ as anything but “a transgressor of boundaries.” However, perhaps what Aspray means by this is that Falque does not cross into foreign lands in order to conquer them, but rather to listen to those living there—which is an important part of his method that Aspray rightly emphasises:

Emmanuel Falque is first and foremost a true listener, reaching out across the barricades to engage in serious and honest dialogue with people who ‘see things differently’ than Christians. This listening attitude is laudable, because it shows love and respect for the humanity of the people to whom he listens. (168)

Secondly, Aspray’s choice of metaphor should also be criticised for downplaying the reality and significance of philosophy’s separation from theology: regardless of the “artificial” way in which it may have come about institutionally, it is a significant reality for the way in which each discipline understands itself and is practiced today. That this distinction should not be taken seriously is a claim some theologians and confessional philosophers like to make in the most casual of ways as supposedly self-evident. That it only seems to be confessional thinkers making this claim has apparently never given them any pause. Yet, if there is a Christian thinker who understands that even a confessional philosopher cannot display such a careless disregard towards the work of their atheist colleagues, it is Emmanuel Falque: he maintains that he is philosophe avant tout because he wants his argument to be intelligible to those who do not share his faith and might not even recognise theology as a valid intellectual enterprise, let alone understand their own philosophising as connected to it in any way. Finally, Aspray’s use of the marriage counsellor metaphor is perhaps too one-sided: after all, marriage counsellors do not just reconcile lovers who have grown apart; at times, they also facilitate an amicable divorce once the marriage has run its course. Perhaps Falque is then only a marriage counsellor in the latter sense: setting up the division of assets between two former partners who have grown apart after a long history together and must now reconfigure their relationship by way of a loving struggle. Falque’s question is first of all how to think the apparently still productive relationship between philosophy and theology once history has separated them from each other: he never questions this separation, for at no instance does he want to confuse the two.

It is curious that Aspray never acknowledges this alternative interpretation of the metaphor he uses. I wonder if that might be because the rest of his essay inadvertently tends to merge or confuse philosophy and theology in its apparent assumption that the two self-evidently belong together, meaning that any attempt at separating them must be dismissed as an artificial accident of history: the job of the marriage counsellor, for Aspray, is to reconcile what naturally belongs together. Yet, in thinking of the marriage of philosophy and theology as entirely natural, one risks confusing them. For example, Aspray writes: “Philosophy and theology can enrich each other precisely because they offer mutually complementary perspectives on the same object” (163). This statement seems innocent enough, yet we must be careful: in saying that philosophy and theology are complementary, i.e. that together they provide a full account of their shared object, it is implied that theology completes the limited account provided by philosophy (or vice versa). Yet, Falque’s principle of proportionality (i.e., ‘the more we theologise, the better we philosophise’) does not state that in stepping onto the terrain of theology the philosopher ends up with a better ‘philosophy’ (i.e., a more complete one), but rather that their ‘philosophising’ is improved (i.e., becomes more rigorously philosophical). There is thus a difference between saying that philosophy can learn from theology and saying that theology completes philosophy. A philosophical explanation is complete in itself, though it can be more philosophically rigorous when confronted with theology, for philosophy thereby gains an appreciation of its own distinction from theology (i.e., it does not confuse its own concepts with similar theological ones).

The confusion of theological and philosophical concepts might then be precisely what is going on in Aspray’s critique of Falque. Noting appreciatively that Falque advocates for constructing all theology on top of a secular philosophical anthropology—so that the Christian message may be available and intelligible to all (i.e., on the basis of our shared humanity) rather than to a privileged set of believers (i.e., on the basis of faith as a pre-existing God-relationship)—, Aspray is nevertheless concerned that Falque may be showing too much deference to philosophy in practice:

But if philosophy has such a large impact on theology, as Falque rightly insists, it becomes all the more important that philosophy is correct in its account of the human condition. Falque’s picture of the human is the one given to us by contemporary phenomenology (…). But is it the correct picture of the plain and simple human (l’homme tout court)? Should theology allow itself to be unilaterally determined by contemporary phenomenology? Such a position would open theology to be led about by the trends of philosophy like a dog on a leash that must follow wherever its master goes. (171)

Now, Aspray produces a valid theological critique of Falque’s larger framework which, when followed to its logical conclusion, really robs theology of any methodological independence: theology, too, would essentially exist in elucidation of the existentiality of the human being and a phenomenology of its transformation by the encounter with God. That being said, it is hard to think of a period in history where theology would have had complete methodological independence: theology has always had to borrow its method from philosophy, history, social science, etc. Aspray also rightly makes the important point that there can be philosophical discussion about what constitutes a good understanding of the human condition: there is no reason to privilege Heidegger’s analytic of finitude to the extent Falque does without real justification and to the detriment of alternative philosophical accounts. We might say that Aspray therefore accuses Falque of ‘anthropological homogeneity’ alongside Benson’s complaint of ‘religious homogeneity’. However, insofar as Aspray suggests that it is up to theology to decide what constitutes an adequate anthropology, he risks confusing philosophical and theological conceptualisations of the human condition. Theology, by definition, cannot evaluate the account philosophy provides of what Falque calls l’homme tout court, for this is a fundamentally philosophical notion: it indicates the human being ‘as such’ (tout court), i.e. in terms of its pure and simple humanity and thus without any reference to God whatsoever. Such an understanding of the human being as ‘pure nature’ is, of course, highly unorthodox in terms of Catholic theology, but Falque is not doing theology: insofar as he thinks of himself as philosophe avant tout, his methodology equally maintains philosophie avant tout. His method is really based on a fundamental rejection of the most influential ideas of Henri de Lubac’s:

Although it is absolutely invalid from a dogmatic point of view, insofar as it rejects a divine creation, the conjecture of a ‘pure nature’ retains here nonetheless a certain heuristic value. Human beings were not created without grace, but all the same we find ourselves first in nature (or better in finitude)—that is to say, independent of the evidence that will be the revelation of God. In this respect we return to our own humanity along with all of those of our contemporaries who are capable of living authentically without God. Contemporary philosophy thus finds, and in the shape of phenomenology in particular, what Catholic theology had thought already settled.[3]

In other words, the philosophical conception of l’homme tout court by definition cannot be evaluated on a theological basis because theology never views the human being tout court, but always in relation to God. It is this perspective that makes theology theological, meaning distinct from philosophy insofar as they both entertain anthropological themes. Theology and philosophy are different disciplines and will therefore produces different anthropologies: theology cannot disprove philosophy’s claims about the human condition, just like physics cannot disprove theology’s claims about the origin of the world­—such cross-disciplinary evaluation would amount to a confusion of disciplinary boundaries and concepts (or worse, a theological imperialism akin to the scientific naturalism theologians are often so eager to reject). In short, philosophy is not completed by theology and theology therefore cannot take anything away from philosophy; yet, this does not mean that they cannot learn from one another: in their mutual encounter, in crossing the boundary and setting foot on the terrain of the other, each gains a better appreciation of their own rigour without confusing it with that of the other.

Perhaps I can propose a metaphor of my own to interpret what Falque understands as the transformation of philosophy by theology and vice versa. Rather than military manoeuvres, athletic contests or marriage counselling, perhaps the philosopher or theologian’s venturing beyond their respective borders should be understood as a form of tourism. A tourist certainly crosses international borders, but always does so with the intention of returning home shortly afterwards. Moreover, a tourist clearly stands out as such and is never confused with a local. This is not to disparage tourism, for it is often a transformative experience: not because the tourist stays long enough so as to become a local, but precisely because the experience of having been abroad has transformed the way they perceive their homeland upon their return. The British tourist does not become French simply by taking the Eurostar to Paris. However, having enjoyed the gastronomy of France whilst away from home, they might find they have lost their previous appetite for English food upon their return. At the same time, simply setting foot in France has—sadly—in no way given them mastery of French cuisine so that they might recreate it at home. So, the transformation that takes place is not of the Brit into a Frenchman; instead, the Brit is changed insofar as they come to see or conceive of Britain and their own Britishness in a new way. Of course, they may have brought some things back with them from France, but souvenirs are generally tacky and unsophisticated things. We should think of the philosopher’s venturing onto the terrain of theology in the same way: unmistakeably not themselves one of the theologians who are native to this foreign land, and indeed probably unaware of much of this tribe’s sophistication; the philosopher courageous enough to listen will nevertheless have their philosophical practice enriched by this experience upon their return, as long as they can refrain from bringing with them ready-made theological truths that turn out to be garish once placed in a philosophical landscape and are aware that at no point do they themselves turn into a theologian or master the distinct rigour of theology. Perhaps the crossing Falque has in mind is then not Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC, but Lévinas’ crossing of the Rhine in 1928: not a hostile military invasion, but a relatively short and temporary scholarly stay abroad born out of intellectual interest in or love for a way of thinking that is different from what one is used to at home. After all, when he returned after his two semesters of study with Husserl, Lévinas did not spend his life developing Husserlian orthodoxy but rather renewed and transformed French philosophy by way of phenomenology: clearing the space for a distinctly French phenomenology and thereby immediately inscribing into that phenomenology the potential for its later theological turn (i.e., the epiphany of the face becoming the theophany of Christ).

Of course, I don’t claim any authority for my particular choice of metaphor. It will have flaws of its own, as all metaphors do (e.g., it would be wrong to think of Falque himself, personally, as a mere tourist on the terrain of theology). Indeed, given the variety of metaphors used by its contributors and the contradictions this leads to, this volume perfectly illustrates the philosophical endeavour itself: it is the necessarily metaphorical character of thinking that prohibits philosophy from ever considering any question as settled, including questions concerning the interpretation of other philosophers. For that is, ultimately, what this volume establishes most clearly: Emmanuel Falque is a philosopher worthy of the name; i.e., not just an author who thinks (and comes up with metaphors), but an author whose thinking spawns different ‘paths of thinking’ (Denkwege) in others (who come up with their own metaphors). As a result, the publication of this first edited volume on Falque’s work is an event to be celebrated: it will undoubtedly set the tone for scholarship of Falque in years to come and hopefully encourage further exercises in the rigorous crosspollination of philosophy and theology he advocates (i.e., crossing without confusing).


[1] Christina M. Gschwandtner. 2013. Postmodern Apologetics: Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press, 184.

[2] Emmanuel Falque. 2018. The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates. Trans. by Bradley B. Onishi and Lucas McCracken. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1-2.

[3] Emmanuel Falque. 2012. The Metamorphosis of Finitude: An Essay on Birth and Resurrection. Trans. by George Hughes. New York: Fordham University Press, 16.

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