On the Philosophy of Religion

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On the Philosophy of Religion

Can there be a philosophy of religion? I do not mean to ask whether philosophy can dwell on topics generally thought to be the subject matter of religion, i.e. the nature of the soul, the existence of God, the problem of evil, etc. These are all very interesting topics of study in their own right and, for that reason, deserve to be brought into the light of philosophical reason.

On their own merits, however, questions about these topics tend to rest on the unexamined assumption that there are certain subjects that fall under the rather nebulous category of religion. Quite often, the subjects themselves, i.e. God, the soul, miracles, etc., are abstract conceptual derivations of particular expressions of religiosity - most notably of the Abrahamic faiths, broadly construed - and for that reason are not in of themselves necessarily indicative of the moral, spiritual and existential content of the faiths from which they are derived. For this reason, the analytic philosophy of religion as it is typically practiced, and taught in undergraduate courses across North America, can end up being an exercise in missing the point.  If there is such a thing as religion, it would seem that its entire purpose would be to seek an experience of that which cannot be demonstrably proven to exist precisely because it is thought to be the ontological ground and condition of all that is. To search for proof of such a ground would be tantamount to asking one who has experienced the sublimity of a Caravaggio painting whether he can be objectively sure of the reality of the painting's referent, or asking the lover to demonstrate in proper deductive syllogisms the reason for his love.

This is not to say, of course, that religion is inherently irrational or that there cannot be good metaphysical, ontological and ethical reasons for belief. It is to say, rather, that these reasons cannot be derived from nowhere. The lover's reasons derive from his love, which he takes to be of the utmost importance, the spirit that breathes life into all the rest of his worldly activities and endows them with a sense of purpose. If the love is lost, or if it turns out never to have been love in the first place, the lover's sense of his own world is thrown into the states of confusion, disenchantment and even anger. Many a song has been written about this phenomenon.

We may indeed have good reason to say that the lover was "wrong" in his commitment, that the love did not turn out to be what he thought it was all along. Yet, even our reasons, derived from a place "outside" the lover's experiences, share in some commitment as to the meaning of the object in question, i.e. love or the possibility of love. Some may have tried to share warning signs with the lover that his devotion to the beloved would not be reciprocated. They do not deny the object of love; indeed, their warning to the lover is a kind of affirmation of something which ought to be there but isn't. Even those who, more cynically, deny the possibility of unconditional love, who would tell the lover, "I told you so!"; even these must interpret his gestures towards the beloved as naive or silly. They affirm the same object as the lover in the mode of denial or negation. They must acknowledge the absolute nature of the referent in order to place their negative brackets around it, i.e. to say that it can never be made manifest. The claim may well be true, but not demonstrably so. The cynic commits unconditionally to the claim that there can be no unconditional love; however, so long as the future remains open, such a claim can itself be called into question by the enduring promise of love.  

Josh Ritter, in my opinion, one of the world's best living singer-songwriters, sums up the mystery of love's endurance in "Joy to You Baby" on his 2013 album, The Beast in its Tracks: "There's pain in whatever / we stumble upon / If I never had met you / You couldn't have gone / But then I couldn't have met you / We couldn't have been / I guess it all adds up / to joy in the end."

No scrap of evidence could ever disprove the lover's trust in the reality of the enduring significance of his love. Perhaps he is a fool. But perhaps he is profoundly wise. Indeed, as Ritter's songs seem always to remind us, we are perhaps all melancholic lovers who reflect from time to time on a world that seems consistently to bring us face to face with the "promise" only of our brokenness, loss and inevitable death. Yet the melancholic moment would not be possible without some intuition - however obscure - of a deeper promise that somehow the broken shards of human longing and love will ultimately piece together into something meaningful and good. Some of Ritter's songs even bear glimmers of hope in something resembling the historic Christian idea of the resurrection of life beyond death, where we finally understand that all of our worldly loves have been in one way or another born of the eternal and are, for that reason alone, redeemed

What is Religion?

Religion, like love, is notoriously difficult to define because, in a lot of ways, the term is a catch-all category for an enormous variety of phenomena. The term variously calls to mind, among other things, rites of worship, sacred texts, relics, icons, burial customs and metaphysical ideas about spiritual realities that span a multitude of cultural expressions across the globe. Yet, just as I believe it possible to name the essence of love, even if the poets perhaps do it best, so also do I think there is such a thing as religion.

As both Hegel and Kierkegaard argued phenomenologically, religion is the substance of one's relation to the absolute. It is a paradoxical sort of relationality because, by definition, the absolute is without relation.

How are we to make sense of this? Again, an analogy to romantic love is fitting. In essence, love is a kind of relation. It is the relation of the lover to his beloved or the relation that holds between them. However, when we give some consideration to just the sort of relation that holds between two lovers, we can see that it originates with neither of them in isolation from the other. Love unrequited is no love at all. Or, in colloquial terms, it takes two to tango. Where does love originate? While it is true that there would be no actual love without the gestures and responses of the lovers toward each other, the substance of this love cannot be located in any one of these gestures or responses, nor even in all of them taken together. The "dance" of love is a comprehensive whole that transcends the individual acts in sequence. Each "step" of the dance takes place in response to the preceding one and in anticipation of the next only because it is guided by an overarching theme, i.e. the dance itself. The dance - or the Eros of romantic love - is the form or inherent meaning of the gestures of the dancers and lovers. As such, it is absolute in the sense that it bears no extrinsic relation to anything in particular, having to do with dancing or loving. Instead, the latter is unfolded from the form itself. The lover relates to his beloved by making sense of the form of love unfolding between them. He improvises in a sort of play precisely because he understands himself and his beloved to be taking part in a reality to which they are both beholden.

This is the sort of phenomenon both Hegel and Kierkegaard have in mind when they speak, in Phenomenology of Spirit and Fear and Trembling, respectively, of the relation to the absolute. However, unlike a dance or (in most cases) a romantic relationship, religious faith is a kind of self-regard that holds itself to be the deepest and most pervasive kind of relationship possible in the human experience. The reason for this, quite simply put, is that religion has to do with everything. This is why Kierkegaard states that faith is the absolute relation to the absolute. It is not just that the substance of faith is, like that of a dance, a comprehensive whole; rather, it is that this whole is without extrinsic relation to any other forms of existence. All of the other ways that we can "be" in the world are enfolded into this absolute and are its expressions.

If we are to take this phenomenological characterization of religious faith seriously, we must at least acknowledge the possibility that the reason religion may be so difficult to define is not that the concept is too hazy or general to be useful. Rather, it is that religion is the most sharply paradoxical form of human experience. It designates a comprehensive whole - i.e. the whole of one's existence - that bears no extrinsic relation to anything at all.

To exist is necessarily to find oneself always in relation to things and other people. It is to recognize an outside to my experience of myself. Enfolded into my experience of the world are things that make themselves available to my use; nevertheless, it belongs to the very structure of my encounter with things that I recognize as their "otherness". The table is only available to be used because it is something to which I can relate myself. It is something "in itself" that is not me. Likewise, the other person to whom I relate in communication is enfolded into my experience as a "you" or "her". Yet, it is only because her presence places negative limits on my own possibilities that I can acknowledge her to be the one she is. To be able to address my wife as "you", for example, I must already have acknowledged her being completely other to "me". Implicit to this acknowledgment is the intuition, not only that there is an other person who is like me yet is not, but also that I could never gain access to that person's consciousness precisely in the way she experiences it. Her very presence places limits on my existence, even though those same limits are the conditions by which I am able to stand in relation to another.  

To exist is already and always to stand in relation to others, which is to say, to exist is to be exposed to others precisely in virtue of the limits their existence places upon me. Existence is structurally relational. That is its substance. If the presence of things and other people is folded into my existence, i.e. my own experience of being-in-the-world, so my existence is a reality that bumps up against things and is a presence folded into the experiences of others. What, however, is this relationality in principle? It is absolute in the sense that it bears no extrinsic relation to anything beyond itself. How could it, if existence is in principle the whole of relationality? The heart of one's own existence is, then, a paradox. To "be" is to be (finitely) in relation to others that limit me. Yet, the whole of this relationality is without relation, which is to say that it is without limit. It is infinite. I exist only in virtue of the fact that the substance of my own existence outstrips my experience of myself, i.e. as a finite being. My existence as a whole is infinite. As finite, it is one step in the "dance" of infinite relationality which unfolds in each and every consciousness.

Religion is the self-conscious attempt to articulate this infinite relationality in harmony with every other such articulation. It is a kind of faith because its actions derive from a fundamental trust in the infinity of its object. That is to say, religious faith acts in anticipation that, by virtue of its very finite, limited nature as act, it will be the very condition for the enactment of a relation without limit. It carries forth the trust, in other words, that it will be the unfolding of the infinite in the finite terms of space and time. Such an unfolding by definition cannot ever be completed. It always brings with it, therefore, the promise of still yet a greater harmonization of all things "in" being.

Practically speaking, religion often plays itself out in the form of sacred rites, mediation, scripture readings, and the like. We in the secular West carry within ourselves a strong sense of separation between "religious" activities, such as prayer or going to church, with the other, more ordinary things that tend to occupy our time. Yet even in a culture that is happy to pigeonhole just about everything, no devout person would say that even something as mundane as his daily routines have absolutely nothing to do with his beliefs or intuitions about the divine. Even these are carried out in the attitude of, for example, thanksgiving; or, at the very least, the religionist acknowledges that they ought to be so carried out, even if he lapses in his piety from time to time.

The example is not meant to single out "empirical" evidence for the everydayness of religion. My point is a phenomenological one. The example serves to illustrate something about the deep structure of experience as such. To exist as a self-conscious agent within the world is already to find oneself in each situation having to behave in such a way that one brings to articulation some sense or understanding of this ultimate "harmony" of the infinite with(in) finite being. Our attempts at compartmentalization in fact betray a deeper acknowledgment on our part of the impossibility of outstripping this necessity. The distinction of relatively secular from more pious, meditational or devotional aspects of life is an aspect of the "dance" of culture and civilization in the working out of the religious form of human existence.

This form is akin to that of love or the dance in that it is that which participates in the variety of movements that enact it. Yet, because religion concerns everything, it is supposed to endow other meaningful human activities with significance by helping situate them in the context of an entire way of life that is itself an embodied response to the questions, "Why bother?" or "What does anything mean at all?"

Of course, philosophy, too, attempts to answer these questions. And the earliest philosophers, i.e. those of Greek antiquity, thought philosophy to be a way of life, something akin to what we might now call religion, though carried out in the mode of radical intellectual inquiry. Our mediation on religion brings us to its place of intersection with philosophy.

Religion and Philosophy

For the reasons argued above, religion works its way into the warp and woof of the collective expression of a culture. Philosophy in the Axial Age, especially that of Plato and Aristotle, was, arguably the intellectual analysis and synthesis of the sundry mythological accounts that had already given shape to the self-understanding of the Greek world. In Apology, for example, Socrates undercuts the accusation again him that he has denied the gods of the city only through an ironic demonstration that it is in fact his Athenian interlocutors who have lapsed. In one move, both radical and in some ways profoundly conservative, Socrates exposes false, self-serving piety whilst affirming, in the idiom of philosophical reason, the enduring importance of the real thing. Similarly, in Plato's philosophy, desire finds its highest expression, not in the soul's contemplation of being, but in its relationship to the absolute good that is beyond being, an absolute relationship whose ultimate significance must remain couched in myth insofar as the soul remains bound to the time and so profoundly mysterious to itself, as Jean-Louis Chrétien has shown. If philosophical reason clarifies the intuitions of religion, it does so only in virtue of its remaining bound to its mythological wellspring.  

 The lapse of vital cultural mythology concerning the divine signals, then, the lapse also of philosophical reason.  When Nietzsche's famous madman pronounces at dawn in the market square that God is dead, he simultaneously asks whether humanity can bear up under such an event as the death of the absolute, likening it to the unchaining of the earth from the sun or the wiping away of the horizon.

Similarly, Heidegger wonders whether another god will indeed announce itself under the conditions of modernity, wherein all other gods have fled. In Heidegger's thinking, the announcement of a god is tantamount to the reawakening of an entire cultural and civilizational way of being - i.e. a world - endowed with a profound sense of meaning and purpose. The latter cannot be merely invented, as though humanity could simply fashion itself from nothing, but must be acknowledged as in a certain respect the "gifts" of an ineffable, infinite origin, albeit one that hides itself entirely in its manifestations. Heidegger's "last god" (der letzte Gott) signals the end of all metaphysical attempts at grasping this origin. However, Heidegger's attempted renewal of philosophy with his notion of "thinking" (Denken) is not without its own form of mythologizing. This is why Heidegger can, in my view, be read as a thinker who in fact retrieves something essential in ancient philosophy, even if it is the case, as I also think, Heidegger's understanding of metaphysics is much too narrow.    

To signal the death or absence of God is to affirm the object in the negative, as both Nietzsche and Heidegger were well aware. Their thought were profound meditations on the shape of a world and humanity in light, not of the lapse of thinking about the infinite, but of its explosion. There is now an infinity of expressions of will, each its own world, its own absolute. Yet, no "will" differs in essence from any other; all inherently belong together in their shared overcoming of all manifestation of stable, enduring form. The sole "form" of modernity is that of the overcoming of form, the overcoming of self and all collective identity. This is technology - not the techne of craft - but the systematic overthrow of all purpose beyond that of the circuitous - pointless - generation of power for change.

Is not this description, though, also a modern one insofar as it depends on a certain sort of objective claim without recourse to myth? Is it truly the case that modernity has lost its religion, something to be boldly admitted (Nietzsche) or rued in an anticipatory key (Heidegger)? To borrow a phrase from Bruno Latour, we have never been (quite so) modern.

Latour's concept of the factisch is helpful, here. The term arises from Latour's overall calling into question of the untenable modern distinction between pure, objective "facts" of nature, on the one hand, and equally pure - but purely fabricated - works or "fetishes" of culture, on the other. The primitive worshipper, contends the modern, fabricates his idol by carving an image into stone. He thereby invents the god he worships by projecting its image onto an inanimate thing. The "god" and its image in the stone is a work of culture; the carved stone is and remains a brute fact of nature. As Latour contends, however, there is no observable trace of an object of nature without its having been completely absorbed into the cultural context wherein it finds expression. Likewise, there is no "culture" to be found among observable things outside the particular expressions of the natural world (i.e. human culture is itself an expression of "nature"). The poles of nature and culture belong to a heuristic of modern thought that was supposed to enable the latter to achieve a distinction or separation of itself from primitive belief. Nevertheless, as Latour contends (with reference to the peculiarities of objects at once discovered and thoroughly fabricated in the laboratory - fabricated because discovered in such a highly artificial way), modern humanity has never truly abandoned factishes, which are at once facts of nature and human fabrications. As John Milbank writes:

[Factishes] are not natural realities which we represent, but rather things that we co-produce along with nature. Nor, anymore than rituals, are they exactly planned: instead, we are [...] 'surprised' by the arrival of the experiment and its result. They both 'occur' to us, because both ourselves and nature are jointly caught up in an arriving event. (116)  

Modern humanity, in other words, has never abandoned collective ritual as a means of constituting itself and its relationship to nature, being, or all that is. Our continued production of factishes betrays our hope, not only in our ability to establish through our efforts something meaningful and worthwhile, but also in the corresponding outworking in ourselves of something wholly natural, and perhaps divine.

Nietzsche and Heidegger both grappled with something akin to Latour's insight; yet, they both also, each in his own way, contend that metaphysics - culminating in modernity - announces its own collapse. All along, according to these thinkers, there truly was only will or only the sending of being. Yet, these, too, are artifacts of human thinking that take shape, as it were, only because of the ineluctable and inscrutable "play" of human and natural initiative.

Religion, then, has never gone away, not because it remains one among many possibilities of being human. Instead, like other phenomena such as the appreciation of beauty and openness to love, religion is a perduring form of human experience as such. Just as the etymology of the word religion suggests - the Latin religare denotes the pull of the one obligated "back" to the source of its obligation - we are dealing here with an object that cannot simply be ignored, no more than can the object of moral duty.

Modern humanity has never ceased being religious, not least because it has never ceased in the production of factishes, despite the fact that, again as Milbank puts it, "the dominating ritual" of modernity, abstract method, "is one that tends to undo and conceal itself, because the abstraction and repeatability of technocratic science insinuates a rigid division between the material 'applied to' and the 'form imposed'." (117) In other words, technocratic science - technology in Heidegger's sense - is ritual deceit or collective make-believe that insinuates both that we are absolutely free agents in the universe and that we are subject to the determining power of processes that ultimately condition us. On one side of the coin, human freedom is the imposed form and nature the formed material; however, when nature yields its "results", it becomes the form impressed on the human-cultural material. There is never a way to integrate the two perspectives except to elide the one or the other according to the imperative of a bad religion which merely is the imperative of control.

This is not to say that good religion must by definition be explicitly bound to some concrete, achievable good. Beyond moral duty and its imperative, which always bears in mind something of the sort, the religious obligation has no aim beyond itself, which renders it much more akin to artistic expression than the moral life simpliciter, which is perhaps why the most profound expressions of religion are as opposed to wooden "Apollonian" systems of moral propriety as they are to "Dionysian" flights of aesthetic abandon. Again, each of these extremes is, at times, wedded to the modern-technocratic imperative. It is often though to be our collective duty as modern humanity to make nature yield her secrets, even if the process of doing so carries with it the intoxication of power.  

As an alternative to our modern oscillation between these extremes, humanity might once again consider the Platonic tradition, wherein beauty affords us a glimpse of a still-deeper horizon of meaning that, if it can be said to announce itself in experience, then it does so precisely through the promise of a future in which all that has been makes sense as a whole, i.e. is presently found to be good. If the aesthete fails to recognize this deeper horizon of the promise in beauty, the moralizer, perhaps more perniciously as Kierkegaard observed, holds himself fast under the strict demands of the law to the exclusion of beauty. He would sacrifice all for the sake of the good, not to receive it back as a gift, but to prove its unworthiness to his lofty ideal. Genuine religion - or faith, in the language of Fear and Trembling - never truly sacrifices anything, but finds itself only in its joyfully creative, ethical sharing of beautiful things with others out of collective gratitude for the gift of existence.

This is the highest aim of religion. It takes shape in historic Christianity in the figure of God historically incarnated in redeemed humanity which is, along with the cosmos, wholly the expression of the divine creative work. (The other great world religions, at least in my estimate, bear some analogy to this thought, also.) It stands to reason, then, that the enemy of our shared religious longings for the absolute good is not a supposedly "secular" denial of religion as much as it is the distortion of these longings into self-destructive expressions of dominance and control, even for purportedly good reasons.

I think that this characterizes the age we live in now, where even our human need to take risks in the pursuit of what is beautiful - and perhaps what may ultimately turn out to be good - tends increasingly to be co-opted by a kind of collective will to power ritualized, again as both Latour and Milbank insist, in practices that reinforce only the illusion of control, over nature and society. The will to control, or the will that wills itself alone as the only good, is the ethos of modern religiosity. However, it is an impossible ethos, a chimera, for reasons we have discussed.  

It is not adequate, therefore, to valorize libertarian demands for individual freedom in the face of the emergent state-corporate technocracy that liberalism has mutated into. Nor is it desirable to look to reactionary populist assertions of national sovereignty, even in the name of safeguarding some religious vision, as these are invariably bound up with the same ideology of sovereign will beyond the good. With the death of an already-illusory, God conceived as a pure sovereign will comes only its transference to the sphere of human contrivance conceived variously as individual, democratic or national will, the corporate state, and now, the transhumanist reshaping of humanity down to the molecular level.    

Such is, as we have seen, the moral imperative bound up with a certain sort of religiosity that characterizes the modern project. Yet, again as Bruno Latour argues, we have never been modern, at least not in the way we might think. For, after all, pure will is nothing besides an abstraction, and neither this nor any other abstraction ever truly stood behind our collective experimentation on both the natural and human worlds as though determining them from the outset. Will, too, is a graven image, if a conceptual one. It is with this name that we attempt to designate the nearly infinite number of agencies, human and non-human, rising to expression, giving shape to the nature that constitutes them. Humanity cannot jointly decide that the cosmos of agencies are of one essence - one will - except through its ritual attempts at showing this to be the case. Such a shared project is inevitably still bound up with a shared mythology of the good, even if it turns out to be self-defeating, perhaps the tale of Icarus whose flight towards the eternal sun leads only to the chaos of the waters which, in the subversion of the tale, is held to be the only "good" after all.  

The only viable alternative to this perverse modern myth is, to my mind, some kind of return to an understanding of philosophy that recognizes its capacity for reflection on the nature and meaning of our shared ritual life and collective mythologizing so as to deepen them by drawing out and bringing to speculative completion their metaphysical implications as forms of the good - or in the Hegelian/Kierkegaardian idiom - forms of infinite relationality.

On the Philosophy of Religion

In returning, then, to the questions characterizing the philosophy of religion as it is currently practiced in North America, we are ever-mindful of the deeper questions concerning the spirit from which they arise. Much, of course, can be learned from "critical" philosophical accounts of religion as illusory, or as forms of social and psychological repression or bourgeoise ideology. Yet, the hermeneutics of suspicion (to borrow a term from Paul Ricoeur) which claims to discover in the outward expression of religiosity some form of superstition, oppression, repression or ressentiment which covers over the real moral, social or psychological phenomenon at play, also arguably fails to take seriously the object of religion, phenomenologically, on its own terms. If, as I have argued, there truly is no escaping the necessity of some form of religiosity, then to be suspicious is not to be rationally neutral so much as it is to embody some form of prophetic response which, in certain ways at least, remains fixed within the horizon of religiosity it simultaneously lays bare. As with both the Hebrew prophets of old and Socrates, it is to measure certain elements of confession against other, purportedly deeper ones. A more steadfast phenomenological account of religion, as the one we find in Hegel (as John Russon correctly argues), acknowledges the deep religiosity of reasoning itself, even if it also holds that rationality prophetically clarifies and often stands to correct the intuitions of faith, holding the latter open to its ethical content.

All of this is just to say that my phenomenological case for the deeply religious character of rationality does not entail that all philosophical reasoning about God or the soul must play out within a narrow dogmatic framework. Quite the contrary, different perspectives are often able to show us the blind spots in our own reasoning where, left to our own devices, we would be inclined to fall back on deeply ingrained views without thinking much about them. Again, this is not because, as the regnant liberal-modern ideology dominating our universities would have it, the philosophy of religion proceeds by way of a clash of radically different views and the arbitration of a supposedly neutral rationality. In the end, there is no real distinction to be made between radical difference and radical indifference; thus, it is not surprising that, under an extreme form of liberal modernity as we now inhabit, questions concerning the viability of religious beliefs are typically met with the universal snore of undergraduates, perhaps accompanied by the ennui of their liberally-minded professors.

Again, to my mind, the only viable alternative to the now almost entirely dominant idolization of the unencumbered will and the liberal-technocratic reign of (in)difference is a reaffirmation of transcendence, which of course can take quite drastically different shapes across diverse cultural and religious traditions. To affirm transcendence is, as Plato taught, to affirm our universal participation as human beings in the ineffable which, nonetheless, at least in principle can be recognized and spoken about by all, across cultural boundaries. Human beings are not so radically different from one another that communication pertaining to the good is to be ruled out of bounds or carefully circumscribed by supposedly neutral rules of rational evidence and procedure. That is to say, our reasoning about God or the infinite good can be just as experimental and creative as human reasoning about all manner of objects, provided there is something resembling a shared human project dedicated to the uncovering of truth in all its facets.

Of course, claims or beliefs about objects of religion, in order to pass muster, would have to be consistent with our intuitions about, for example, the ontological integrity of the natural world or our need for the cosmos to make moral sense to us. Paradoxically, however, it is only in light of something resembling a shared project - rooted in a shared mythos of the good and our dedication to its discovery - that humanity could have common intuitions, while, on the other hand, it is precisely these intuitions that drive us to cultivate shared perspectives and projects.

How is the paradox to be resolved?

We might take recourse here to a certain ontological understanding of the event in which "being" arises. Limit cases in human experience, such as one's own birth and death, indicate precisely the sort of event I am referring to here. That I emerged into being by being born is undeniable; yet, the event of my birth cannot be recollected to me because it entails my very transition into being. I could not return in my memory to a moment in which I was not. Likewise, my death, as Heidegger taught, is indeed an event that belongs to me alone, despite the fact that I could never experience this event, given that my experience entails my continued life. The event has or will already have been in such a way that it cannot be present to me, cannot be recollected now. It is immemorial, not in the sense that it belongs to an irretrievable or forgotten past, but that its announcement as event within my experience takes place in the form of anticipation. I am reminded both that the momentariness of my life has already been entered into and that I have not yet reached myself. Shared myths about the origins of human life and intuitions about its inherent directedness are interwoven precisely because both our looking back and looking forward are bound by the limit of temporality. The point is not, therefore, to resolve the paradox, as if it were possible, but to awaken to its full implication for humanity, i.e. as our shared struggle for meaning in light of the inescapable temporality of existence.

Against modern philosophy, however, this cannot mean that the immemorial event forever remains impervious to speculation. To wrestle with the paradox of our own existence and that of the disclosure of infinite relation is precisely to struggle with names for it, to seek its enactment in the most authentic or genuine way. No human project of proclaiming God or striving for justice is sufficient to its (absolute) object; yet, if it is indeed a gift, neither is it wholly insufficient.

This is not to argue, with Plotinus, that speculation on the divine is at best only partially sufficient because removed from the essence of the One in virtue of its materiality and limitedness. More paradoxically, it is to contend that the naming of the immemorial event of being - as God or the good - is absolutely sufficient in virtue of its failure to return to its ever-dissimulating origin. Mythological and speculative naming is, then, truly a return to the origin in the sense that it is only ever directed laterally in response to the natural and human world in a kind of joyful acknowledgment of its abandonment. One tells the story to others in anticipation of the formation of an ethical community. Conversely, one can do so only because she intuitively understands that she is never truly abandoned to sheer indifference but instead recognizes in his neighbour the promise of a community of mutual giving and giftedness, i.e. that the community has already been "gifted" to them. The point is not to escape the world and temporality but to inhabit them more fully as the ritualized embodiment of infinite relation. Both our "cultural" stories and ideas about the divine and our "natural" sense of what is right in them belong to the one event of the gift in its repeated manifestation.

To my mind, the various traditions rooted in historic Christianity, with the exception perhaps of certain iterations of Judaism, are best able to articulate a vision of this ethical community of the gift because. According to these traditions, God incarnates himself as the original or founding "event" of community-building in the person of Christ who, at the outset, was already only who he was in relation to those to whom he gave himself, already a manifestation of spiritual sharing in the divine wisdom, and in his resurrection following his murder at the hands of the Roman empire, already an announcement of the possibility of life without the reactionary fear of death and loss.  

This is the shared legacy of western civilization, the testament of an event that still gives shape to our collective longings, though, of course, non-western voices promise to enrich the conversation. There is room enough for them all in the generous spirit of our (shared) naming of the divine. To reason with one, another is already to have understood the promise and responded, however imperfectly, to the ethical call of community.        


Chrétien, Jean-Louis. The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For. Translated by Jeffrey Bloechl. Fordham, NY: Fordham University Press. 2002.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford/New York/Toronto/Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Contributions to Philosophy: From Enowning. Translated by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana   University Press. 1989.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Edited and Translated by Howard and   Edna Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1993.  

Latour, Bruno. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Translated by Catherine Porter and Heather MacLean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2010.

--We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Milbank, John. (2010). "Culture and Justice." Theory, Culture & Society, 27(6),   2010: 107–124.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. III.123. Edited by Bernard Williams & Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 119-20.

Plato. Apology.  Translated by G.M.A. Grube. In Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett. 1997. 17-36.

-- Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. In Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett. 1997. 971-1223.

Russon, John. Infinite Phenomenology: The Lessons of Hegel's Science of Experience. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016.

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