On Standing Between
I often think that part of what makes Continental philosophy of religion attractive to so many is its ability to disrupt our assumptions and our expectations about what we so often take for granted in (and about) “religious” communities. There is something deeply compelling about rekindling dynamism in relation to that which has seemingly become all too stagnant. And yet, one of the things that consistently worries me about Continental philosophy, generally, is the way in which it can sometimes appear like there are no anchors onto which one can hold. There often seem to be no places where we can gain our footing in order to move forward more confidently. Indeed, whenever one attempts to argue for such possibilities, it can feel like there are legions of deconstructive scholars waiting just off stage to jump in with objections of foundationalism, objectivism, or essentialism. This makes the task of conscientious Continental philosophy difficult because it would seem that even being able to engage in the scholarship at all requires that one be convinced of all sorts of things as true, and yet to operate in the field seems to require that one is so aware of the inescapable play of power that even the idea of “truth” at all becomes quite suspect. How then do we proceed? How do we oppose foundations and yet recognize the need rationally to support our claims, actions, and identities? How do we challenge objectivism and yet stand for the non-subjectivist truth that should guide our social, moral, and existential lives? In other words, even if “there is no outside of the text,” it is still the case that human-caused climate change is true whether we like it or not.
I have written quite a bit about such epistemic issues that I find to bear upon contemporary Continental philosophy. In particular, I have thought for a long time about the ways that philosophy of religion can both admit of the critical hermeneutic awareness called for by deconstructive phenomenologists and also of the historical determinacy according to which religious communities exist and function. As the debates in this area have shaped up over the past couple decades or so, there has emerged a distinction between those who deconstructively defend a “religion without religion” and those who, like myself, have called for a (similarly deconstructive) alternative of “religion with religion.” Although I continue to think that there is much work yet to be done in this area, and I hope to continue to wrestle with these issues moving forward, sometimes it is important to take a step back and ask whether the very framing of the debate is well-suited to the questions with which we are now confronted.
Joeri Schrijvers’ Between Faith and Belief: Toward a Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life is a book that gives me pause about my own commitments and invites all of us working in the field of Continental philosophy of religion to take a breath and reconsider where we are standing and what it would mean to move forward from there.
Admittedly, Schrijvers’ book is not for the uninitiated. It is, instead, a book by a scholar written for scholars. Reading this book is sort of like what my mom used to refer to as “family talk.” It does not introduce the major players in the debates, but instead intervenes in the conversation in which they are already participating. Yet, this book is not at all merely critical. It is not simply proscriptive, but more impressively and originally, articulates what might be possible if those of us on either side of the “with” or the “without” (or even the “with/out,” which is really how nearly everyone on both sides would choose to describe their own position!) were to resist more effectively the problematic dichotomies that occasionally threaten to throw us back into the oppositional logics that we all have attempted to overcome.
Schrijvers’ basic starting point is Reiner Schürmann’s question: ‘“What is to be done at the end of metaphysics’ once ‘being’ is unhinged from God[?]” (Schrijvers 2016, xi). “The main thesis of the book,” Schrijvers notes, “is that, with a great many of contemporary thinkers (traditions are important), we should stand up and not think of this world, its finitude, and its politics as mere world, mere finitude, mere politics, mere tradition, and mere capitalism. Something transcends all this, and we know not what. This difference, we think, between faith and belief, between finitude and mere finitude, is all a contemporary and secular phenomenology of religious life seeks to install” (Schrijvers 2016, xi). This thesis is profound in its humility and religious awareness, while also encouraging a new approach to the outmoded conceptions of atheism that dominate the contemporary philosophical landscape.
For Schrijvers, standing “between faith and belief” is where we all find ourselves as inheritors of traditions of “religious” meaning. Regardless of one’s own relation to theism, say, such traditions mark out the contours of embodied material existence while also resisting any suggestion that our existence is irreducible to that materiality. That is, “religion” highlights that there is always a more in relation to which we become aware of our lack of understanding, our embodied inadequacies, and yet that “more” does not need to be conceived as within the framework of being such that it is beyond our understanding only due to our own ontological status. Instead, the “lack of being in default,” as Schrijvers describes it, is constitutive of the human condition in ways that yield a “minimal universalism” and “might give way to a joy and an affirmation” (Schrijvers 2016, 311). In an almost Kierkegaardian way, Schrijvers attends to the upbuilding thought that in relation to God (or “God”) we are always in the wrong. Here the humility of existing “after metaphysics” yields a solidarity among all the others with whom we share this situation.
Turning, unexpectedly and impressively, to Peter Sloterdijk and Ludwig Binswanger as resources for understanding the bonds of “love” that unite not only this human condition, but also initiate the philosophical task, Schrijvers is not content simply to point out the limitations of the “with” and the “without,” but goes further and offers a positive articulation of how standing “between” does not amount simply to sitting on fences. In this way, he opens new spaces for inhabiting the difficult middle ground after foundations and yet not without justification; beyond objectivism and yet still with a deep commitment to objectivity as a discursive reality; critical of religion without being against it. In this way, we Continental philosophers of religion can all learn more effectively how to envision a future for our field by reading Schrijvers.
In the end, I admit that I am not sure that I am convinced by all of Schrijvers’ arguments regarding the specifics of God, faith, and religious truth, but I am convinced by the need to be challenged by it in order to get a better sense of the stakes not only of his view, but of my own. Throughout his authorship he has developed the uncanny ability to show the fault lines in positions that even those holding the positions, as well as those critical of them, often overlook. He is a careful reader and an earnest writer and I hope that this symposium brings more attention to his important work.
The contributors to this symposium, Justin Sands, Megan Fritts, Bradley Onishi, and Colby Dickinson, all offer robust critical engagements with Schrijvers’ work. As a testament to the wide-ranging and yet substantive content of Schrijvers’ book, the contributors all engage entirely different debates and discourses in relation to which Schrijvers’ can be situated: phenomenology, Kierkegaardian approaches to the philosophy of love, secularity, and critical political theology. In this way, this symposium is one that I hope invites engagement far beyond Continental philosophy of religion. Even if the book itself is quite technical, the conversations that it can stimulate need not to be similarly situated. Indeed, if Schrijvers is right, then philosophy at its most basic is a call to love others more effectively. Love can mean many things, but it would certainly include hospitality toward engagement with one’s critics. Schrijvers, Sands, Fritts, Onishi, and Dickinson all model how we can live into such love without, thereby, abandoning the very real and very important sites of disagreement that remain.
Schrijvers, Joeri. Between Faith and Belief: Toward a Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016.