A New Direction

I think I’m going to start doing some reading on speculative realism. For which this page will be very helpful. I wonder what’s at stake for Christians in this new movement.


Soskice on Mystics and Language

Janet Martin Soskice, philosopher of religion at Cambridge, defends the realism behind descriptions of mystical experience:

Consider accounts of religious or mystical experience; the mystic, as we have noted, often feels a crisis of descriptive language because there do not seem to be words and concepts in the common stock adequate to his or her experience. This straining of linguistic resources leads to the catachretical employment of metaphor, of phrases like ‘the dark night’, ‘the spiritual marriage’, and ‘mystic union’. But the significance of these terms can be assessed, even by other theists, only in terms of the contexts in which they arise… Often, too, it will be found that the mystic’s remarks arise from particular patterns of devotional life; hence the common injunction that the neophyte follow a particular course of life, of reading and of prayer so that he may, by God’s grace, be open to this ‘night’ or ‘marriage’. Experience is vital to the mystic, but experience interpreted in the descriptive vocabulary of their particular community of interest and tradition of belief.

This emphasis on experience does not mean that only those privileged with mystical experiences can speak about them. The generality of Christians speak of the ‘beatific vision’ without having had experiences which they would describe as such. They do so because they belong to a community and tradition of faith which contains authoritative members for whom the term does denominate a particular experience. There is an element of trust involved in relying on others who experience is wider than one’s own, yet in almost all areas of life this is the perfectly rational enterprise of using the wider resources of the community to extend one’s own, and necessarily limited, experience and expertise. (Metaphor and Religious Language, 151-2)

These ‘authoritative members’ are, of course, the saints, whose own intimate encounters with God ground our language about him, so many years later or across continents. They also provide a sort of guideline for figuring out how to grow deeply into God, as we may recognize similar experiences of a ‘dark night of the soul’ or an intimate ‘spiritual marriage.’

Pascal’s Vision

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a brilliant soul who contributed both to the birth of modern science and Christian philosophy, is said to have undergone an intense, convicting vision. He describes it in these words in his Mémorial, apparently written to himself:

The year of grace 1654,
Monday, the 23rd November, the day of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others of the martyrology,
wake of St. Chrysogonus martyr, and others,
Since around ten-thirty in the evening until around half-past midnight,
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not of the philosophers and wise men.
Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
“My God and your God.”
“Your God will be my God.”
Forgetting the world and all, except God.
He is not found except on the paths taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
“Just Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I was separated from it.
“They have forsaken me, the spring of living water.”
“My God, will you forsake me?”
May I not be separated eternally from you.
“This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and him who you have sent, Jesus Christ.”
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I was separated from him: I fled him, renounced him, crucified him.
May I never be separated from him.
He is not kept but by the paths taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and soft
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day of work on the earth.
“I will not neglect your word.” Amen.

It is said that Pascal stitched this text into the lining of his coat. It was discovered by a servant after his death.

“A Laboratory for New Forms of Faith”

Philip Jenkins, in his recent book, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis, offers the following fascinating statement:

The recent experience of Christian Europe might suggest not that the continent is potentially a graveyard for religion but rather that it is a laboratory for new forms of faith, new structures of organization and interaction, that can accommodate to a dominant secular environment. (19)

The hopeful note is one that I also share. Sometimes I fantasize about the types of books I would love to write, and for a while I’ve had an idea for one called Experiments in Faithfulness that would talk about people and groups like Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, the Koinonia Farm, Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way, and the International House of Prayer movement. These all emerged within a dominant secularism that may in the end be “a laboratory for new forms of faith.”

Lévinas on Work

With a friend, I’m reading through Lévinas’ Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. In the section on “Interiority and Economy,” Lévinas writes this about work:

Work can overcome the poverty that not need, but the uncertainty of the future, brings to being.

The nothingness of the future, we will see, changes in a moment of time when possession and work are inserted. The passage from instantaneous joy to the fabrication of things refers to habitation, to the economy, which assumes the welcome of the other (l’accueil de l’autrui). The pessimism of dereliction is therefore not irremediable–a person holds between their hands the remedy of his evils and the remedies preexist the evils.

But work itself, thanks to which I live freely, assuring me against the uncertainty of life, does not bring to life its final meaning. It becomes in this way that from which I live. I live out of all the contents of my life–even out of the work which assures the future. I live out of my work as I live out of air, light and bread. This fact limits where need imposes itself beyond joy, the proletarian condition condemns one to cursed work, and where the poverty of bodily existence finds neither refuge nor leisure at home, there is the absurd world of thrownness (Geworfenheit).

Le travail peut surmonter l’indigence qu’apporte à l’être non pas le besoin, mais l’incertitude de l’avenir.

Le néant de l’avenir, nous le verrons, vire en intervalle du temps où s’insèrent la possession et le travail. Le passage de la jouissance instantanée à la fabrication des choses, se réfère à l’habitation, à l’économie, laquelle, suppose l’accueil d’autrui. Le pessimisme de la déréliction n’est donc pas irrémédiable – l’homme tient entre ses mains le remède de ses maux et les remèdes préexistent aux maux.

Mais le travail lui-même, grâce auquel je vis librement, m’assurant contre l’incertitude de la vie, n’apporte pas à la vie sa dernière signification. Il devient aussi ce dont je vis. Je vis de tout contenu de la vie – même du travail qui assure l’avenir. Je vis de mon travail comme je vis d’air, de lumière et de pain. Le cas limite où le besoin s’impose par-delà la jouissance, la condition prolétarienne condamnant au travail maudit et où l’indigence de l’existence corporelle ne trouve ni refuge, ni loisir chez soi, c’est là le monde absurde de la Geworfenheit. (156)

Lévinas, in the pages leading up to this passage, continually makes the interesting comment that we live from all the contents of our world: air, bread, shelter. Here he adds also work, as that which tames the uncertainty of the future and its seeming nothingness (néant). Work enables us to find “refuge” and “leisure at home,” ensuring that we are not really living in the “absurd world of thrownness.” But is perhaps Lévinas granting too much to the utility of work here? Is it too much to say that, “A person holds between their hands the remedy of his evils”? Is not for too many in our world work the very thing that makes the future so uncertain?

The Lutherans vs. Locke on Faith and Reason

Luther is famous, among other things, for calling reason a whore. Let us say, at least, that Lutherans since him have been slightly suspicious of its claims. Hamann, a 19th century Lutheran, wrote: “It is the greatest contradiction and misuse of our reason if it wants to reveal” (quoted in Beiser, The Fate of Reason, 22). Reason and revelation do not stand beside each other as two parallel sources, Hamann would say, each handing out some information about the human and divine states of things. Rather, reason is a faculty that muses over the things shown to it, whether by divine revelation or in common experience. As Hamann writes elsewhere, “Experience and revelation are one and the same and indispensable crutches or wings of our reason, if it is not to remain lame and creep along. The senses and history are the foundation and ground – however deceptive the former, and naïve the latter: I nevertheless prefer them to all ethereal castles” (quoted in Betz, After Enlightenment, 230).

Luther calls us to put our full trust in the Word of God, also opposing any “ethereal castles,” though for him, these castles are built with bricks of sinful human words. He, additionally, differs from Hamann on a central point: the role of experience. Hamann saw all his experiences after his conversion as constituting secret messages from God, which simply needed a key to be unlocked. For Luther, in contrast, revelation spoke against his experience–his “clear” and “evident” experience–of guilt and condemnation before God. For John Locke, it is these clear and evident deliverances of reason from experience that make up “the sole matter of all our notions and knowledge” (in Gunton, ed., The Practice of Theology, 171).

The word “matter” here is significant, however. Our “ideas” for Locke mean the most basic elements drawn from our sensory experience of the world (e.g., colours, lengths, durations). So of course, in this sense, revelation cannot be a source of “knowledge” apart from our “reason.” (Revelation does not teach us of additional colours, for example.) But what then can Locke mean when he argues, “For faith can never convince us of anything that contradicts our knowledge” (172)? How could it? Let us turn, then, to how Locke understands “faith.” This he defines as “the assent to any proposition … upon the credit of the proposer” (170).

At first glance, this seems quite an optimistic state for faith, especially when one agrees with Locke that revelation is, by its nature, “the testimony of God (who cannot lie)” (172). The First Vatican Council, interestingly, employs the same language of “proposing for our belief mysteries hidden in God” (Dei Filius, in Gunton, 179). Yet, for Vatican I, the human person is “obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect … by faith” (178). Locke, on the other hand, is less positive about the situation, for the reasoning human person is for him the arbiter of what is or is not revelation.

Since, for Locke, the foundation of all knowledge is our “own understanding” or “intuitive knowledge”, that which we ourselves experience will always be more sure than what is reported either, “by the tradition of writings, or word of mouth” (172). Thus, Locke imposes a further requirement on the Scriptures or reports of tradition: an additional revelation must immediately be given to each individual by God to confirm that these previous revelations are genuine. Of course, God does not grant such genie-wishes and the consequences are dire. Locke writes:

Indeed, if anything shall be thought revelation which is contrary to the plain principles of reason, and the evident knowledge the mind has of its own clear and distinct ideas; there reason must be hearkened to, as a matter within its own province. (173)

It is uncertain just what constitute for Locke the “plain principles,” “evident knowledge,” or elsewhere, “common sense” (173) of a “considerate” or “sober good man” (174). But evidently, not included among these are trust of what is “passed down” from others–the etymological root of “tradition.” Let us return, then, to our polemical friend Luther, who in his commentary on Galatians, writes:

In listing faith among the fruits of the Spirit, Paul obviously does not mean faith in Christ, but faith in men. Such faith is not suspicious of people but believes the best. Naturally the possessor of such faith will be deceived, but he lets it pass. He is ready to believe all men, but he will not trust all men. Where this virtue is lacking men are suspicious, forward, and wayward and will believe nothing nor yield to anybody. No matter how well a person says or does anything, they will find fault with it, and if you do not humor them you can never please them. It is quite impossible to get along with them. Such faith in people therefore, is quite necessary. What kind of life would this be if one person could not believe another person? (Commentary on Galatians, 5:22)

By a strange twist, then, we find Luther supporting a certain claim of tradition against an unmediated–at least through persons, human or divine–delivery of reasonable knowledge. In other words, Luther would argue, against Locke, that we should trust what others tell us about this revelation that has occurred in Jesus Christ, rather than suspiciously holding it up against the light of “our intuitive knowledge” (172). At least he could be read this way here. And interestingly, Locke would be compelled to agree by his (reasonable?) judgment of the trustworthiness of the “one who cannot err, and will not deceive” (173), if only for him the mediatory nature of Scripture were not an insuperable obstacle (172). Or alternatively, if the divine authorship of Scripture were immediately obvious–something careers have been spent attempting to show as “common sense,” whatever that is. Instead, Locke seems to give this cry: if only God would split the heavens and come down! Maybe then he would believe, in view of such clear, immediate evidence. And yet God has: in Christ.

Interview with Meillassoux

There’s an interesting new movement in French philosophy termed “speculative realism” which attempts to recover a chastened confidence in reason. There’s an interview with one of its leading proponents, Quentin Meillassoux, over at Idée@Jour. Since, however, it’s in French, here’s a translation:

Q. Can metaphysics speak to these times of crisis?

A.The very fact of getting back in touch with metaphysical questioning is itself a call to a refound confidence in the capacities of thought. This confidence certainly assumes an increased vigilance, bound by the critical heritage of the last decades, toward the dogmatic illusions which speculative philosophy was able to haul through the centuries. But we see today that the abandonment of metaphysical reflection, far from causing the intolerance of thought to decline, did nothing but exacerbate the desire for a blind faith—as though an overreaching skepticism towards reason turned into a fanaticism wishing to be inaccessible to discussion. Resetting ourselves in a metaphysical perspective permits us to confer anew on the concept—rather than on faith alone or the sole opportunism of interest—the duty of helping us to construct our existence, to “vectorise” the concept in its relation to a world both rich and opaque. A metaphysics instructed by the work of its great adversaries—instructed by its reversals (Nietzsche), by its destruction (Heidegger), therapeutic dissolution (Wittgenstein), or deconstruction (Derrida)—sets out both an extraordinary heritage, a treasure of unique thought towards which we are yet able to return—and at the same time imposes on us a totally new and exciting task: that is, how to produce a contemporary metaphysics, able to give a meaning, even a fragile one, to our lives by the sole force of thought, and one which may be likely to “pass across” [passer au travers] those tremendous undertakings of “demolition” which together ran through [traversé] the 20th century.

Q. What are the paths for metaphysics in 2010?

A. They are numerous, and the foremost among them bears a relation to the renewed questioning of its singular: is it still necessary to speak, like Heidegger or above all Derrida, of metaphysics [“la” métaphysique], or is it better rather to speak of metaphysics-plural [“des” métaphysiques-pluriel] which echoes the title of our [new book] series? In effect, this plurality is manifested to us in at least three ways, which make up three important modalities of contemporary research:

  • First of all, returning to the surface of those metaphysics either forgotten or neglected for a long time in France, when, that is, they represent alternatives to the grand classical systems of Aristotle, Descartes or Hegel: a metaphysics no longer of substance, of the subject, or of the closed system, but of the Open (Bergson), of the event (Whitehead), of singularity-in-becoming (Simondon), of possession (Tarde), of the work to be created [l’oeuvre à faire] (Souriau). Many more undertakings which demonstrate that metaphysics [“la” métaphysique] is not reducible to a determined collection of concepts which, once disqualified, take with them the whole of speculative thought.
  • This power of the difference [l’altérité] of metaphysics permits us to be comforted in our hope for its renewal, and that from the heart itself of those currents which contested it the most radically: Alain Badiou, thinking totally within the heritage of Lacan‘s anti-philosophy, takes up in depth the most radical requirements of Platonism in order to elaborate a system of the undecidable event and its weak multiplicities; Graham Harman, an American philosopher whose first work in French we are about to publish, successfully extracts from Heidegger himself a completely rethought metaphysics of the object.
  • Finally, this rediscovery of an “other metaphysics” [autre métaphysique] (according to the expression of Pierre Montebello) is accompanied by the discovery of a metaphysics of the other [métaphysique de l’autre]—that is to say, of “non-Western” peoples. In Métaphysique cannibales, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro establishes that the Amerindians developed a metaphysics of original predation, a “multinaturalist perspectivism” that philosophy—in particular that of Deleuze and Guattari—can help us to tackle and understand. Viveiros can then cite, to support his point, a postface of Lévi-Strauss to a volume of L’Homme, dating from 2000, which treats of this “metaphysics of original predation” and reveals to us the gripping evolution of the author of Mythologiques vis-à-vis philosophy: “…whether one rejoices or worries, philosophy once again occupies center stage. No longer our philosophy, of which my generation had asked foreign [exotiques] peoples for help to dismantle [défaire]; but rather, by a striking turn, theirs.”

One could not better describe the movement underway: this benefit (bien) from a thirst for otherness [altérité] and the decentering which metaphysics begins again in the plural, requiring us to think this profusion in preserving it, as much as we can, from ancient wanderings.