Symposium Introduction

Readers of The New Phenomenology are in for a rare treat! Few books have challenged me to rethink the sometimes complicated relationship between faith and reason as this one has done. Furthermore, the writers have skillfully pieced together a rather complex puzzle drawing from the insights of a vastly diverse assortment of philosophers, from Kant to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, et al., to more contemporary thinkers from both analytic and Continental traditions. Indeed, it is uncommon to find a source that mentions Christian philosophers of religion such as William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne in the same paragraph with Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson have effectively demonstrated how these varied strands of thought connect and converge.The crucial issue in the text concerns a potential nexus between Husserl’s phenomenology and the “New Phenomenology.” Essentially, it is a question of whether traditional phenomenology has certain built-in parameters thereby limiting itself to the sensory realm. Or, does it permit an expansion into a broader phenomenality (e.g., religious phenomena)? In order to investigate this question further, this symposium brings together four scholars to continue a critical discussion of the book’s themes.

Tracey Stout directs our attention to the overriding question of whether or not the new phenomenology is remaining faithful to its phenomenological heritage. Or, by turning its attention to the transcendent, has the new phenomenology forsaken “pure phenomenology”? The phenomenological traditionalists (e.g., Janicaud) seek to draw a firm line in the sand between phenomenology, as originally understood, and certain accounts of the new phenomenology. According to Stout, “These newer thinkers continue to do phenomenology albeit in a new register or with a new set of concerns which open up new avenues for phenomenological description of what does not present itself as an object.” This is not to say that the new phenomenology has mutated into some kind of theology, but it offers a “phenomenological description of what is beyond concrete sense perceptions . . . of the unapparent, life, givenness and phenomenality itself,” including religious matters. Admittedly, Stout observes, one could view this as a veiled attempt to venture into the domain of theology. Nonetheless, the new phenomenology hints at the possibility of an unintended awareness of non-sensory phenomena. That said, Simmons and Benson maintain that the new phenomenology is still phenomenological. As Stout notes, for Simmons and Benson it is important that “what the new phenomenologists describe is given to us, even if in indirect and negative ways, in experience.” Indeed, Stout asks, why limit phenomenology to the study of sensory phenomena when Husserl himself allowed “things that appear to be taken as they give themselves to us”? This is not to suggest that the new phenomenologists appeal to theology as an authority, but rather that it is an “archive of resources from which to draw” (Stout). It accomplishes this by combining kataphatic language with apophatic theology. The new phenomenology, therefore, does not uphold the truth-claims of theology, but it may consider reasonable claims within the discipline of philosophy of religion. So, how does one delineate between philosophy and theology when the boundary, at times, seems malleable? For his part, Simmons proposes a “reconstructive separatism,” a distinction without absolute separation. As Stout observes, “Theology can use phenomenological method and phenomenology can utilize insights from religious traditions.” Stout’s essay not only brings the reader back to the question of whether phenomenology should embrace the unapparent, but it also raises an interesting question: “Does phenomenology’s return to the things themselves inevitably push in this direction?” (Stout). Stout contends that, actually, it does. As he explains, phenomenology “naturally lends itself to, and perhaps, requires the excessiveness and overflow found in these thinkers. The world itself raises the questions and takes us in this direction.” One need go no further than Heidegger to detect traces of the kataphatic tradition. Stout, of course, is not suggesting that Heidegger was a theologian, but simply understands the implications of “the method of examining the phenomena that appear to us [such that it] leads us to ask the next questions of excess, givenness, or depth.” In the end, Stout agrees with Simmons and Benson that there is a distinction between the new phenomenology and theology, but it’s complicated at best to draw a hard line in the sand between the two. Then again, at this point I’m inclined to remember the “drawing-the-line” fallacy. That is, just because a precise line cannot be draw between two disciplines doesn’t mean, nonetheless, that there isn’t also an obvious difference.

Nathan Eric Dickman advances two positive reflections of the book and concludes with a “critical challenge to the new phenomenology.” He begins with the central question of whether there are boundaries to the “old” phenomenology, and, whether the new phenomenologists somehow crossed the line so that they are no longer adhering to what Husserl originally intended? To answer this question, Dickman draws our attention to the core features of phenomenology. If we know the essentials of the old and the new phenomenology, then it’s just a matter of comparing the two to determine if the variances are too significant. And, if they are, does the new phenomenology limit diversity or hinder inclusivity (e.g., ethnic or academic disciplines, or other fields that call for the use of perception)? Dickman’s second observation involves the question of criteria. Specifically, who should make the phenomenological cut? He mentions several names (Tillich, Anderson, et al.) and questions their absence in the book. Perhaps the more thought-provoking inquiry concerns the relationship between the new phenomenology and theology and/or religion (not to mention various kataphatic versions of Christian philosophy). Granted, they are not the same, but can they complement each other? Is there a “mashup” version that does justice to the spirit of the disciplines? The dilemma is that, in the pursuit of truth, conventional philosophy has performed well in the role of the interrogator, but it consistently comes up short as an ultimate source for the answers. Can the new phenomenology step in and shed some light on the enduring questions of life? In his conclusion, Dickman challenges the authors regarding the assumed diversity of the new phenomenologists. To be truly varied, it would call for examples from outside of the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Vita Emery presses the question of the extent of phenomenology by asking, “What is not phenomenology?” She frames her response to the authors by probing the three main tenets of their argument. First is the question of whether the new phenomenology is a rightful successor to the original phenomenology of Husserl (i.e., a presupposition-less, albeit intentional, description of one’s experience of phenomena). It would seem, Emery observes, that historical phenomenology consists of built-in boundaries of inquiry unless a distinction can be made between phenomena and phenomenality. The notion of phenomenality may permit an expansion of phenomenology into religious matters. Second, according to Emery, Simmons and Benson contend that phenomenality offers “new answers to questions that philosophy of religion has historically responded to more dogmatically.” Based on her own frustrations with the impracticality of traditional phenomenology, Emery sees value in examining, by means of phenomenality, our “existential lens” through which we view the world. That said, Emery reminds us that our existential lens may also carry “existential baggage” and, thus, we should proceed with caution when navigating religious matters. Third, Emery reflects on the final thesis, i.e., whether Simmons and Benson can create a “mashup” or “bridge between continental philosophy of religion and analytic philosophy of religion.”

Bradley Onishi proposes a third “conversation partner” into the mix—literature. His prolegomena includes a recap of Simmons’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology and a reminder that, whatever the correlation, all reflection begins with one’s presuppositions about religious matters. How then do we accomplish Simmons’ goals (i.e., deriving from diverse fields, circumventing hegemonic approaches, being open to discursive options)? Onishi utilizes the paradigm of “encounter” in which, as he describes it, “the scholar of religion remakes and recreates his or her account of the human, world, or cosmos through the religious phenomena he or she studies.” Following the example of Tyler Roberts’s Encountering Religion, Onishi envisions an endeavor “wherein secular thinkers engaging religious texts, figures, and events, can be read as a response to unsatisfying and inaccurate visions of secularity by way of engagement with religious phenomena.” The outcome, according to Onishi, is for philosophers to “develop both compelling interpretations of religious phenomena and generous and vibrant accounts of the secular.” That is, the aim is to “philosophize with religion as a means for inheriting, creating, and mediating visions of the human, world, and cosmos.” Onishi likens this process to the “braided essay,” whereby “an author braids together two or more themes and narratives,” and, hence, Onishi sees a correspondence between this literary device and Simmons’s mashup philosophy. Indeed, Onishi suggests that it is possible that “all truth is bound up this way, in braided forms, various traditions, and seemingly disparate sources.” In sum, Onishi’s stated objective is to “avoid the rigidity of genres, recognize the distinction of philosophy and religion while creating avenues for mutually fecund encounters, to open new discursive possibilities in philosophy and religion, and to combine the logical and the poetic.” At the end of his essay, he raises the questions of the extent and the limits of mashup philosophy. Are there any standards that limit access to other nontraditional sources or genres other than philosophy and religion? In the end, there seem to be some parallels between the authors’ mashup methodology and Onishi’s attempt to “combine the logical with the poetic.” Then again, we return to the question of whether there are any boundaries to such an endeavor.



Porous Boundaries

Philosophy and Theology in The New Phenomenology

This interaction with The New Phenomenology is largely an appreciative one. I find the book to be a good introduction to this set of thinkers and questions. Therefore, my thoughts here are not critical, but seek to engage in conversation on a key issue: the relationship between phenomenology and theology. This particular issue runs through the book and keeps coming to the surface. One of the primary theses for the book is that the new phenomenology can be taken as a legitimate heir to historical phenomenology when we take phenomenology to be a way of inquiry and not a strict, rigid set of doctrines or assumptions about how phenomena are allowed to appear (Simmons and Benson 2013, 7). In light of the charge that the new phenomenology has actually become theology in the guise of phenomenology, I will examine the book’s argument that the new phenomenologists are still doing phenomenology and ask some questions that arise from preserving the distinction.

Maintaining the Boundary

That a turn to religious issues or questions has taken place in these phenomenologists is clear. The charges that this turn constituted a “theological turn” in phenomenology famously came from Dominique Janicaud who asserted in the early 1990s that the practitioners of this new phenomenology have left behind the realm of immanent phenomenality in their openness to “the invisible, to the Other, to a pure givenness, or to an ‘archi-revelation’” (Janicaud 2000, 17). His primary concern was that these phenomenologists (Levinas, Marion, Chrétien, and Henry) have abandoned the method of a pure phenomenology. The primary goal of phenomenology, according to Janicaud, should be neutrality, but the new phenomenologists assume the existence of what transcends phenomenological method. Thus, they have the “philosophical genealogy” but not the “methodological legitimacy” of phenomenology (Janicaud 2000, 49). Phenomenology is reduced, he asserts, to an inspiration for their work or a springboard from which no longer to work on the level of phenomena but rather in search of divine transcendence (Janicaud 2000, 70).

Janicaud thinks that preserving the rigor of the phenomenological method is in the best interest of phenomenology and other forms of philosophy and theology. He insists that phenomenology and theology are two different disciplines such that they “make two” (Janicaud 2000, 103). Simmons and Benson agree with this fundamental point. Phenomenology and theology should be kept distinct. Yet, they insist that these newer thinkers continue to do phenomenology, albeit in a new register or with a new set of concerns which open up new avenues for phenomenological description of what does not present itself as an object. As Simmons and Benson state, “The new phenomenologists disagree on important points, but they all recognize the excessiveness of phenomenality in any particular phenomenon” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 71–72). New phenomenology, they suggest, is perhaps “heretical” for opening up, if not exploding, the “as such” structure of intentionality and intuition. The central notions of phenomenology—intention and intuition—are interrupted by phenomena that cannot be contained by my intention. We experience in our perception of objects and things a reality that we cannot comprehend—variously named “Life,” “the Other,” “saturated phenomena,” “excess,” or “the invisible.” This excessiveness puts into question the very notion of intention as the consciousness of an individual that controls the world experienced “as such.” The self-enclosed subject is also opened up in favor of an inter-subjectivity that constitutes but also challenges my own identity and understanding. The new phenomenology offers an intersubjective, communal understanding of intentionality.

In this openness to excessive phenomenality, phenomenology has not morphed into theology. It has, however, opened itself to such charges because these philosophers seek to offer phenomenological description of what seems to be beyond concrete sense perceptions. The new phenomenologists, thus, attempt to offer descriptions of the unapparent, life, givenness and phenomenality itself. These descriptions are not necessarily “religious,” but their openness to the excessive and the invisible could easily be understood as sliding into a theological register (Simmons and Benson 2013, 74). The new phenomenologists, Simmons and Benson admit, “draw on seemingly ‘religious’ expressions and conceptuality in the attempt to speak about that which ‘overflows,’ ‘saturates,’ and ‘ruptures’ expression” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 72). They have, in their different ways, been seeking “the ways in which non-intentional intuition might be possible such that there might be things given to consciousness that do not ‘appear’ in any straightforward way” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 74).

Simmons and Benson defend the status of this radical new phenomenology as phenomenology with three key points. First, the motivation and evidence allowed is still phenomenological. What the new phenomenologists describe is given to us, even if in indirect and negative ways, in experience. Insisting that they cannot phenomenologically describe what they seek to describe, due to a prima facie methodological framework, is too limiting. To reject new phenomenology’s attempts to investigate the excessiveness of the Other or Life, or paradox, say, would be to problematically restrict Husserl’s key principle of all principles without warrant. Husserl’s principle of all principles is to allow things that appear to be taken as they give themselves to us. As such, “religious” phenomena, for example, might appear and thus can be described in the indirect ways that seem so similar to negative theology (Simmons and Benson 2013, 132). Phenomenology needs to be open to possible phenomena that might force a change in the methods themselves (Simmons and Benson 2013, 134).

Second, the new phenomenologists do not utilize theological sources as special authorities. Theological and mystical sources do, nonetheless, permeate many of these texts by new phenomenologists. Yet, we are told, the new phenomenologists use theological sources as an archive of resources from which to draw, but that they are careful not to allow this archive to become an authority in their work in ways that might be appropriate to theology, but problematic for philosophy (Simmons and Benson 2013, 105). For example, Chrétien uses sources from Christian thought because the way of speaking he finds in theology “actually illuminates the phenomena” that he is considering (Simmons and Benson 2013, 67; see also 125).

In this way, theological and mystical sources are used because they are helpful in describing what the new phenomenology seeks to make available for philosophical description and analysis. The method of mystical theologians we call negative theology proves helpful to phenomenological analysis of things not readily apparent to us. The way that mystical and theological sources speak of God—viz., indirectly, by negation, by analogy—provided a method that phenomenology needed in order to speak about the phenomena that can only be understood by our understanding of other things. The method of apophatic theology and the kataphatic language of the divine names tradition provide a method for philosophical inquiry of what is unapparent. This tradition in Christian thought opens possibilities for phenomenology (Simmons and Benson 2013, 121).

Third, the new phenomenology limits itself to the rational possibilities of religious phenomena, such as revelation. Especially in the work of Marion, the description of givenness itself, and not simply a phenomenon given to experience and consciousness, opens the possibility of revelation. But, as Simmons and Benson contend, Marion stops at the limits of possibility (Simmons and Benson 2013, 111–13). He does not move to a phenomenological affirmation of the actuality of any given religious revelation or tradition (Simmons and Benson 2013, 134–35). As they explain: “As a new phenomenologist, Marion appreciates the need to stop short of affirming the actuality of the ‘truths that only faith can reach,’ but he rightly allows for phenomenological consideration of such truths as historical phenomena worth taking seriously” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 176). Seeking to demonstrate the possibility of revelation is the work of philosophy of religion. Theology’s work lies elsewhere.

Porous Boundaries

Thus, Simmons and Benson argue that the new phenomenology is a radical phenomenology, but remains phenomenology nonetheless. However, they do recognize that the boundary between phenomenology and theology is a porous one even while seeking to retain the distinction. The same thinker, even within the same work, they admit, seems to cross the border with little problem. Phenomenology and theology may still indeed make two, but the two may exist along a boundary that allows thinkers to pass through more easily than some would like.

Simmons has elsewhere described a problematic “separatism,” according to which phenomenology and theology are completely separated as disciplines, and a similarly problematic strategy of “reconstruction,” which attempts to reconceive of religious language in philosophical categories (Simmons 2010; see also 2011, ch. 7). Janicaud’s separatism limits phenomenology to a worldless neutrality. Yet, a reconstructive approach that doesn’t admit of any actual religious tradition, but only a philosophically palatable version of one is no better. In contrast to these bad options, Simmons offers a “reconstructive separatism” that recognizes the inherent biases and authorities of both phenomenology and theology. Such an approach pays much greater attention to the historical and communal situatedness of those in both disciplines. Theology can use phenomenological method and phenomenology can utilize insights from religious traditions. “The point is . . . that keeping these distinct is not to keep them separate,” Simmons suggests, “but merely to keep open a conversation between different perspectives” (Simmons 2010, 29).

In a similar fashion, Bradley Onishi, one of the other contributors to this symposium, finds in Emmanuel Falque a new generation of the new phenomenology. In Falque we see a tendency not to blur theology and philosophy but to keep them distinct so that they may encounter one another. Falque seeks an encounter between the two that would not convert one or the other, but that could prove mutually enriching. The goal is “a transformative encounter between theology and philosophy that can reorient and enliven both disciplines” (Onishi 2017, 101). For Falque, and Onishi, keeping the distinction between philosophy and theology is important precisely so that a true encounter between the two is possible. Each can expand the view of the other, and ultimately “critique and transform one another” (Onishi, 2017, 104).

As a theologian, I am in general agreement with these interpretations of the relation between philosophy and theology. The difference between the two cannot be that theology is confessionally biased and philosophy remains neutral. The difference cannot be that only theology appeals to authorities while philosophy stays free of such appeals.

As a way of inviting critical conversation then, I will ask a few questions regarding a phenomenological approach to the distinction between phenomenology and theology:

1. Are there limits to a radical/new phenomenology?

If the phenomenological description of the unapparent, givenness, and the rest are radical phenomenology, what ceases to be phenomenology? If Husserl’s rigorous methodology can be expanded to include these transcendent questions, what cannot be included? Janicaud thinks that preserving the rigor of phenomenological method is in the best interest of phenomenology and other forms of philosophy or theology. In the new phenomenology, when does one exceed possibility? Perhaps Janicaud had a helpful point when he said that “Levinas was clearer and more convincing when he spoke frankly of ‘overflowing’ phenomenology’” (Janicaud 2000, 48).

2. Is the new phenomenology, in a sense, inevitable or unavoidable?

The questions of the new phenomenology are the radical extension of the questions of human perception and consciousness. Does phenomenology’s return to the things themselves inevitably push in this direction? I would assert that phenomenology, naturally lends itself to, and perhaps, requires the excessiveness and overflow found in these thinkers. The world itself raises the questions and takes us in this direction. The drive to participate in what is deeper and excessive is the outcome of a deeper look at the things themselves. But, the only way to arrive at what exceeds or grounds the normal phenomena is through the finite and physical themselves.

Janicaud traced the origin of this new approach to phenomenology back to the late Heidegger’s phenomenology of the unapparent. Heidegger began the phenomenological description of what is not seen (Janicaud 2000, 31; see also Simmons and Benson 2013, 27–32). In Janicaud’s negative assessment, Heidegger led the way in a phenomenology that abandoned phenomena. However, the impetus toward seeking what is deeper than the things themselves goes back to Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology—not just after the “turn” but in his early work. Early in Being and Time Heidegger made the programmatic statement—“only as phenomenology is ontology possible” (Heidegger 1962, 60). According to Heidegger, then, ontology can only be done as phenomenology. We cannot speak of Being apart from its appearance in beings. It seems that Heidegger already appropriated for philosophical language and purposes the long theological tradition which contends that, though the essence of God’s very nature is beyond being and therefore beyond understanding, God can only be known through God’s effects. In this respect, Heidegger and the new phenomenologists may have morphed theology into phenomenology.

The unique discourses of negation, excess, and indirect affirmation that we find in Heidegger and more fully developed in the new phenomenology are the heart of the Dionysian tradition. The most profoundly negative theologians have all insisted that God is absolute mystery unavailable to human language and thought because God is beyond being and not a being that can be discussed and thought. Yet every one of these thinkers have also said that God can be named. But, God can only be named through what we do know as finite, physical, historical beings. Dionysius insisted that God is beyond being and thus beyond knowledge. If we are to speak of the goodness that underlies all things we cannot do so directly without reducing God to a being. We “must turn to all of creation” (Dionysius, Divine Names 1.5). Theologians praise the source of what is by every name—and as the Nameless One (DN 1.6). He says further: “As Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything that is” (DN 1.7; see also DN 7.3). Seeking to name the excessiveness of God, Dionysius will say: “Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being” (Mystical Theology 1.2). This key dual idea is also found throughout the Dionysian tradition, including Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and Thomas Aquinas.

I am not trying to argue that Heidegger was a theologian, but to ask whether the excess and extension of the new phenomenology are inevitable in the method itself. In the examination of the things themselves—do the things point to a radical excess and transcendence which are unavoidable? Something about the method of examining the phenomena that appear to us leads us to ask the next questions of excess, givenness, or depth. When phenomenology opens itself to these questions the things themselves become signs of a larger horizon.

3. Is question #2 a philosophical or a theological question?

What makes Tillich and Rahner theologians and what makes Marion and Chrétien philosophers? Rahner’s fundamental anthropology is as deeply Heideggerian as the new phenomenology. Is it the other works they do that makes them theologians? Are the questions of the possibility of revelation and excess truly philosophical questions? What about John Macquarrie or Robert Sokolowski? Why is one a theologian and the other a phenomenologist? For that matter what was Thomas Aquinas—which department would he teach in today? Should Justin Martyr have continued to wear his philosopher’s robe? The boundaries between philosophy and theology are often so porous that one can pass between them—even in the same works. At some point porous boundaries may no longer provide boundaries at all—maybe that’s okay.

Jean-Yves Lacoste has asserted that the strong distinction between philosophy and theology as distinct disciplines did not exist until the university when the divisions of disciplines required the distinctions. Lacoste wants to move to something akin to Heidegger’s thinking that can include theology and philosophy working toward a greater cause (Lacoste 2014). Without being able to develop this, I want to ask—does it help to think of philosophy and theology as tasks rather than as distinct disciplines? The definitions of theology and philosophy are based on social location and purposes as much as content. The same people can do both tasks (even in the same books). The task done in philosophy and the task of theology can be distinguished, but often are done by the same thinkers. It seems clear to me that Marion steps beyond the phenomenological in some works like God Without Being. He asserts an understanding of God as Love which he thinks overcomes the onto-theological tradition. Jean-Louis Chrétien clearly does approach the Bible as sacred authority sometimes. (See the essays in Chrétien 2015.) Andrew Prevot has argued that Chrétien’s work is better understood as theology (Prevot 2015). But, when they do phenomenology, it does seem that they are doing a different task and adhering to the limits as explained above.

Thus, ultimately I am convinced that Simmons and Benson are correct, but I still have a puzzling sense that maintaining the distinction that they desire is quite difficult. This difficulty comes from the porosity of boundaries and from something in the nature of the things themselves. When doing theology, I would assert that the world described in the new phenomenology is “sacramental,” but would that be assuming a theological conclusion if I were attempting to do phenomenological description.


Works Cited

Chrétien, Jean-Louis. 2015. Under the Gaze of the Bible. New York: Fordham University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row.

Janicaud, Dominique. 2000. “The Theological Turn in French Phenomenology.” In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, translated by Bernard G. Prusak. New York: Fordham University Press.: 16-103.

Onishi, Bradley B. 2017. “Philosophy and Theology: Emmanuel Falque and the New Theological Turn.” In Evil, Fallenness, and Finitude, edited by Bruce Ellis Benson and B. Keith Putt. Palgrave Macmillan.: 97-113.

Prevot, Andrew. 2015. “Responsorial Thought: Jean-Louis Chretien’s Distinctive Approach to Theology and Phenomenology.” Heythrop Journal 56: 975–87.

Pseudo-Dionysius. 1987. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibheid and Paul Rorem. New York: Paulist.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2010. “Continuing to Look for God in France: On the Relationship between Phenomenology and Theology.” In Words of Life: New Theological Turns in French Phenomenology, edited by Bruce Ellis Benson and Norman Wirzba. New York: Fordham University Press.: 15-29.

———. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Bruce Ellis Benson. 2013. The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

  • J. Aaron Simmons

    J. Aaron Simmons


    Reply to Tracey Stout

    In this reply to Tracey Stout, I want to lay out some things that will hopefully be helpful in framing some of the discussions and engagements that will unfold over the course of the symposium.

    Ok, so let’s start by going back to the beginning. The New Phenomenology came about in a rather odd way. Many years ago, I was at a conference book exhibit and went up to the table of what was then Continuum Press (which eventually became Bloomsbury Academic) because I was a fan of their Guide for the Perplexed series of introductory books. I asked if they had anything planned for that series on recent trends in French phenomenology. The Continuum editor said “No, but would you be interested in writing one?” I laughed, thanked him, but politely declined due to having too many other obligations. He told me to keep in touch and let him know if I changed my mind. A few weeks later I was talking with my friend Bruce Benson about the invitation to write the book. During our conversation, I jokingly said, “You know, it would be a lot of fun for us to write something like this together.” Somehow, by the end of the conversation we had agreed to give it a shot.

    As often happens to the best laid plans, the book did not unfold as we had initially intended. The original proposal included only one (short) opening chapter on philosophy of religion that was projected to respond to Dominique Janicaud’s charge that the new phenomenology was just disguised confessional theology. Our thought was that we would lay out a few reasons for thinking that his view on this front was not obviously true such that it was well worth engaging these thinkers as offering a distinctive philosophical trajectory relevant to a variety of contemporary debates. Intentionally attempting to avoid the common “figure-based” approaches of many books in continental philosophy, we proposed chapters on new phenomenological resources for epistemology, aesthetics, epistemology, moral theory, political philosophy, etc. I still think that would have been a great book, and in many ways, it is a book that still needs to be written!

    As we began the actual writing, though, what was supposed to be a quick explanation for why we were not focusing on philosophy of religion turned into a book-length engagement with it! Sigh. Yet, perhaps this was necessary. Rarely is it easy to predict how long it will take to work through a question and, as I see it, the real issue raised by new phenomenology is how to make sense of philosophical inquiry into phenomena that seemingly resist description or, alternatively, are best “described” as not appearing/given in straightforward or direct ways. In this sense, then, I think it is a misunderstanding of the book to view it as a book on the philosophy of religion. It is, instead, a book on the function and limits of phenomenology. When testing limits, God-talk, “religious” phenomena, mystical dimensions of human existence, etc., tend to be good places to turn for potential data. It is for this reason that we ended up staying longer than planned within the orbit of Janicaud’s contention about an inappropriate slippage from phenomenology to theology. As we propose in the book, Janicaud’s challenge is not simply a historical claim about new phenomenologists, but instead a claim about how to understand the evidential structures operative in philosophical inquiry and theological discourse more broadly.

    Our main theses in the book, then, are theses meant to argue for new phenomenology’s relevance to contemporary philosophy (far beyond merely philosophy of religion) precisely because philosophical (and specifically phenomenological) research should be open to a more expansive conception of phenomena than is sometimes admitted by the traditional guardians of the discourse (or, said more negatively, the more restrictive conception that they propose is unwarranted). This book is, then, at least as I see it (and I wonder if Bruce would agree with me), really a book in meta-philosophy. In this way, I take it to be moving in the same direction as much of my other work that has been devoted to meta-philosophical questions about what philosophy is and how it should be best practiced as a way of life.

    Accordingly, and here let me begin to turn to Tracey Stout’s fine engagement with our book, I am interested in the relation between philosophy and theology for philosophical reasons. Yet, this begs the question of what counts as a “philosophical” reason as opposed to some other sort of reason. It seems that whenever we attempt to draw boundaries between philosophy and theology (or between philosophy and literature, as will be important in Bradley Onishi’s contribution to this symposium) we end up, on the one hand, excluding more than we want and, on the other hand, including more than makes sense.

    Although I have taken up these issues attending to the relation between philosophy and theology elsewhere, in brief my view (and I am speaking only for myself and not for Bruce here) is that philosophy (whether phenomenological or not) and theology are distinguished because of the different epistemic authorities to which they are able to appeal without argument. Theology can immediately appeal to ecclesial, revelational, textual, and creedal authorities, for example, in ways that philosophy probably should not. Importantly, this expanded evidential set does not count for or against theology, but simply epistemically distinguishes it from philosophy as a variant community of discursive practice. In this way, neither philosophy nor theology are “neutral” or “unbiased,” etc. Both appeal to authorities that are socially contextual and historically contingent. Even though I deny any sort of disciplinary essentialism, I do think that there are reasons to take seriously where we find ourselves, as philosophers, or as theologians, or as sociologists, or as chemists, etc., and then offer arguments for how best to moving forward from where we are.

    In this way, I am sympathetic to those who argue that the borders of philosophy and theology should not be stringently policed (e.g., Reformed epistemologists and those associated with analytic theology), but I ultimately hold the view that philosophy and theology are both better off when philosophers and theologians sit at the table together rather than either trying to occupy all the chairs. Philosophers are more effective at doing philosophy well when they admit that they are not theologians and, precisely due to that fact, are able to understand theology as itself a potential archive upon which philosophically to draw. Similarly, theologians are more effective at doing theology well when they appropriate philosophical research but don’t reduce their discourse to it.

    Tracey Stout’s general summary of the main issues in The New Phenomenology all seem generally correct to me and so I will dive directly into his questions:

    1. Are there limits to new phenomenology?

    This question reminds me of Kevin Schilbrack’s question in Philosophy and the Study of Religions (Blackwell 2014): “What Isn’t Religion?” Recognizing that if “religion” is a category that extends too far, then there really isn’t any critical work that the category can do for us, Schilbrack attempts to delineate a methodology that finds the right balance between being too inclusive, and therefore vacuous, and being too exclusive, and therefore unhelpful for the inquiry at hand. The way I see it is that the only limits of phenomenology are the limits of appearance/givenness. So, although it seems entirely sensible that phenomena can “appear” in a variety of ways, including as “unapparent” (Heidegger) or “invisible” (Merleau-Ponty), etc., it would be wrong to offer descriptions of those phenomena as if they appeared otherwise than they do. The limits of phenomenology should be viewed as the constraint that lived experience places upon our descriptions of it.

    At the end of the day, we should strive to describe things appropriately, even if, in some cases, inadequately (here I am drawing on a distinction that shows up in Pseudo-Dionysius such that we can use words that are “appropriate” to God even if we can’t use words that are “adequate” to God). In this way, I don’t see phenomenology as all that different, in this sense, from any other philosophical discourse. Philosophy should strive toward truth—in beliefs, descriptions, normative recommendations, etc. Phenomenology should do that same: seek to get things right relative to the way in which phenomena (or even phenomenality) present themselves, or fail to present themselves, to our intuition. Intuition might outstrip intentionality, but that very fact says something phenomenologically interesting about the phenomena under consideration. So, when we “overflow” phenomenological philosophy, I think that we can do so in a variety of ways: for example, doing philosophy according to different methodological commitments, moving away from philosophical authority structures to theological ones, or offering descriptions no longer aimed at truth, but at persuasion, say.

    2. Is the new phenomenology, in a sense, inevitable or unavoidable?

    I don’t know about “inevitable,” but I think it is probably quite likely. We can’t simply run the same experiment over and over, continue to get the same results, and think that we are making new discoveries. It is sensible that when we have described what appears as far as possible, we will begin to realize that some of what appears does so as “unapparent,” or so it seems. Pushing into that “seeming” is where I think the lover of wisdom and truth (the philosopher) will always go insofar as, as Socrates says, she is committed to “following the beloved wherever it leads.” Nonetheless, that there is a rationality underwriting such extended pursuits does not mean that there is necessarily anything to find as a result of them. It might be that pushing beyond the boundaries of straightforward appearance, and moving from an investigation into phenomena to an interrogation of phenomenality itself, will lead us to realize that we should go back within those boundaries. Some experiments just prove that we should rethink our research question or the methodology according to which it has been considered. So, even if new phenomenology is “inevitable,” that does not mean that the specific ontological, ethical, or epistemological claims offered by the new phenomenologists are. It makes sense that once we have explored our own solar system we would attempt to explore what lies beyond it. It doesn’t make sense to assume that it is necessary that we will find something out there waiting for us.

    3. Is question #2 a philosophical or a theological question?

    It all depends to which authority structures we appeal in attempting to answer it. That is, I don’t see any specific results necessitated by the inevitability of pushing questions farther than we have before. Similarly, I don’t see any evidential structure being assumed by the question of what is likely about the functioning of our phenomenological inquiry. How we then go about considering data that we take to be relevant to such inquiry is where I take it that philosophy and theology start to show up as distinct discourses appealing to different evidential authorities. For example, Republicans and Democrats both pay taxes. Where things get interesting is in how the different groups understand paying taxes to say something about the way the world is and should be. Philosophers and theologians—and chemists, and sociologists, and physicists—are all likely to continue to push into what remains unsaid, unexplored, and unconsidered in their respective fields. In that regard, I don’t take question #2 to be philosophical or theological, in any determinate and narrow sense. Yet, the chemist, the physicist, and the theologian are all going to have different conceptions of what is relevant data then to be considered in that expanded inquiry.

    In the end, Stout is right that maintaining distinctions is always difficult work. It is difficult because existence is messy and none of us are singularly located in one discursive community. We are complicated. As Walt Whitman says, we “contain multitudes.” Yet, that doesn’t mean that we can’t focus in on particular commitments, evidential structures, methodological approaches, and conceptual frames as we find ourselves asking specific questions—questions that always occur in relation to a contingent history of the very community in which we find ourselves now asking them (even if perhaps for the first time).



Apologetics in/and/or Phenomenology

What Makes This rather than That “New” Phenomenology?

I appreciate J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson’s (2013) effort to make recent French phenomenology accessible to a wider audience,1 and I respect their effort to defend ways in which figures covered (such as Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Levinas) are indeed doing phenomenology. This defense seems motivated in the face of accusations or even dismissals of such figures as merely religious thinkers (see Janicaud 2000). In what follows, I will develop two constructive considerations about, and one critical challenge to, Simmons and Benson’s project in this book. The first consideration involves imagining an undergraduate introduction to phenomenology course, and seeing to what extent these phenomenologies are “heretical.” The second consideration concerns the criteria for belonging to the new phenomenology trajectory, where I raise other figures who might fit (or not) in it. I close by getting into my critical challenge that the new phenomenologists seem to put phenomenology in the service of their theology or religion rather than use religious archives to deepen their phenomenological impulse (as Simmons and Benson contend). That does not mean, though, that we cannot use them to deeper our phenomenological impulse. Even if these thinkers pan out to be what Robert Wuthnow calls religious “resistors” (2007, ch. 6) or even religious “exclusivists” (Sweetman 2007, ch. 8), future new phenomenologists concerned with philosophy of religion in particular might learn from their shortcomings as well as their strengths.

I. An Introduction to Phenomenology Syllabus

In this section, I want to think through how new or how heretical the new phenomenologists are by exploring options for the development of an undergraduate course in phenomenology. Perhaps some might wonder whether we even should introduce undergraduates to phenomenology. Are such students sufficiently prepared to read Edmund Husserl or Martin Heidegger or Simone de Beauvoir? I agree with Simmons and Benson that we should, because by aiming above their heads we give students something to live up to. What might we see as crucial to include in our imagined course? Which authors or topics would be absolutely necessary (orthodox?), and which would be on the fringe (heretical?), if we could have time to fit them in at all?

Dan Zahavi, in an interview about his recent book on Husserl’s legacy, tries to highlight a core of phenomenology. He thinks that through the rejection of objectivism or scientism, we can focus on our underlying lifeworld as it is composed of elements like intentionality, sociality, embodiment, and temporality (Zahavi 2018). I take talk about a “core” as an acceptable alternative to “essence,” especially since there appears to be a core to new phenomenology (see Simmons and Benson 2013, 52). Let us use Zahavi’s overview as part of our course description or learning objectives. We want students to walk away being able to bracket out our natural or naive attitude, and able to isolate existential structures like sociality and embodiment.

If we are inclined away from having students engage original texts due to inordinate difficulty for readers, I imagine we could consider one of these as our textbook: Dermot Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology (2004) or David Cerbone’s Understanding Phenomenology (2006). I choose these two in particular because although they both focus on those philosophers that Simmons and Benson call “orthodox” figures, they also include Levinas and Jacques Derrida. That is, there is significant overlap between texts setting out to introduce apparently “orthodox” phenomenology and Simmons and Benson’s text setting out to distinguish “heretical” from “orthodox” phenomenology. I do not want to overemphasize this, though. Derrida and Levinas are only two of the five figures covered by Simmons and Benson. Moreover, Simmons and Benson note that, however phenomenologically heretical any particular thinker may be, they all are indebted to Husserl and Heidegger (Simmons and Benson 2013, chs. 1–2) and that the categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are themselves malleable (Simmons and Benson 2013, 83). My broad point here is that there is significant overlap between Simmons and Benson’s text with the texts of Moran and Cerbone—both in terms of target audience (being introduced to phenomenologists) and in terms of content (the phenomenologists selected to be discussed). The advance Simmons and Benson make seems to be primarily in concentrated focus on phenomenologists’ approaches to religion(s?).

Given Zahavi’s objectives and our textbooks as our core, though, what else might we include? Or, put otherwise, what other interests might we serve in teaching students phenomenology besides exposure to and learning skills shaping the core of phenomenology? As a course designer, a number of considerations occur to me here. I think about the American Philosophical Association’s and Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy’s professional advocacy for diversity, especially gender and ethnic diversity in challenging “the canon.” How can I make my course inclusive or even a critique of sedimented norms? I also think about my own strengths in philosophy of religion or my interests in diversifying philosophy of religion. What religious issues could I include, perhaps as a unit near the end of the semester? I also think about the popularity of business or nursing programs. Could we make some aspects of phenomenology particularly relevant for business or nursing majors?

There are a number of works available, like Simmons and Benson’s text, that show ways phenomenology can productively go. These seem to be more than mere applications of “orthodox” phenomenologies. What about examining Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (2006) to get at aspects of lived orientations? Or Don Idhe’s Listening and Voice (2007) to look into applied or experimental phenomenology of acoustics? Or Emily Lee’s Living Alterities (2014) to reflect on the intersections of postcolonial and critical race theory with phenomenology? Or Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (2013) to examine prisons’ effects on perception? I personally would consider using Sumner Twiss and Walter Conser’s Experience of the Sacred (1992) to look at ways phenomenology is used in the study of comparative religions. Are there any phenomenology of business or nursing articles or books? Given all this, how might we prioritize interests and needs in developing a course and making selections of material to cover and use to engage students? Perhaps we could even use any one of these seemingly “secondary” or “applied” texts as forming the main works students will study for the course, and use “orthodox” content only in supplementary ways (such as excerpts from Husserl). I can imagine having a great course using Simmons and Benson, Ahmed, and Lee’s books as the main materials.

Where might Simmons and Benson’s book fit in with these other options or in an ideal course? Given the other options, part of me thinks it may be better for a philosophy of religion course or a Christian theology course rather than an intro to phenomenology course. In our phenomenology course, it could work as a textbook or as an extension of phenomenology into philosophy of religion. This would be, though, to choose religious themes over, or rather than, an explicit confrontation with sexism and racism. Why ought we choose religious themes, the specific religious themes developed in Simmons and Benson’s text, rather than these? Of course, ideally we would not have to choose. We will be limited in time, though, and thus it seems we will need to prioritize. Perhaps, alternatively, this text may work more fittingly in a philosophy of religion course, especially one that poses challenges to analytic philosophy of religion. Or, perhaps the best fit is in a contemporary theology course. I get cognitive dissonance here because Simmons and Benson’s title suggests this is the new phenomenology, as if those other works are not properly new? Is there a particular necessity to religious themes being the next step in evolutions of phenomenology? I would like to hear how Simmons and Benson envision their text in an intro to phenomenology course or their model of an ideal intro to phenomenology course.

II. Criteria for Belonging in the New Phenomenology Trajectory

I want to raise questions about the criteria for belonging within or contributing to the new phenomenology trajectory. I want to point to a few figures that seem to fit but who are not mentioned in the text. The five main topics over which new phenomenologists pose challenges to classical or orthodox phenomenology are: intentionality, horizonality, the epoche, the phenomenological reduction, and (inter)subjectivity (Simmons and Benson 2013, 13). New phenomenologists seem to give up “the as such” and the “horizon,” though still maintain they are doing phenomenology (Simmons and Benson 2013, 44). These initial features of new phenomenologies seem broad enough to include things like Luce Irigaray’s approach to respect for gendered cultural difference (2007), Ahmed’s approach to sexual and lived orientations (2006), de Beauvoir’s approach to the ambiguity of ethics (2015), or Lee’s work on white supremacy and racism (2014). If these can be included among new phenomenologists (and there is a part of me that thinks they should be, at least with Irigaray, Ahmed, and Lee), then why are they not included already?

What seems particularly distinct about the core of new phenomenology—as Simmons and Benson develop it—is a welcomed engagement with religion in some fashion, an engagement that maintains a difference between phenomenology and theology (Simmons and Benson 2013, 84; 99). In other words, “phenomenology and theology make two” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 105). This seems to explain the absence of works like Lee’s and Ahmed’s, though Irigaray does engage religion regularly. As Simmons and Benson isolate, there are a few criteria for “the new phenomenological philosophy of religion”: (a) a notion of evidence true to the givenness of the given, (b) a refusal to allow religious authorities count as evidence or grounding though religious archives can be drawn on for interpretation, and (c) a limitation where one only affirms the possibility of but not actuality of religious phenomena (Simmons and Benson 2013, 134). What Simmons and Benson see as a distinguishing factor between orthodox and heretical phenomenologies is a more sustained and rigorous engagement with religious possibilities.

It seems to me that works of Pamela Sue Anderson (1998), Paul Tillich (1973, 2009), and Rudolph Bultmann (1989) fit within this framework. I select these three because they do not usually get grouped with Levinas, Marion, Michel Henry, and the others. Allow me to point out a few of these for both Tillich and Anderson. As Simmons and Benson seem to urge, phenomenology raises questions, but religions try to provide answers (Simmons and Benson 2013, 94). One problem new phenomenologists (and others) have with “theology” is that it seems to start with answers, particularly “the” answers (Simmons and Benson 2013, 94). A motive for turning to religion that Jean-Louis Chrétien expresses is that, as he thinks, “philosophy poses questions to which it cannot respond in an ultimate fashion” (cited in Simmons and Benson 2013, 107). That is, philosophy poses ultimate questions, but apparently does not have the resources to provide ultimate answers.

Tillich’s theological method of correlation, for example, maps onto this recurrent theme in new phenomenology that philosophy poses questions whereas religions provide answers. But for Tillich, this art of translating religious symbols into fitting responses to philosophically conceptualized questions precisely is theology. Religious symbols, for Tillich, give rise to thought—insofar as symbols are interpreted fittingly in light of philosophical questions.2 (While Tillich primarily worked in Christian theology, I find it somewhat relieving that some of his works engage multiple religions and culture more broadly.) Can/may Tillich be understood as a new phenomenologist? Or, perhaps inversely, can Tillich’s conception of theology help us see that new phenomenologists are doing theology, at least in this Tillichian version of it? I would like to hear why or why not.

Anderson, too, works on a rigorous formulation of what it takes to interpret religious symbols, taking care to resist misogynistic constructions of rationality (see Dickman 2018). How can one be true to the givenness of the given without critical self-consciousness about internalized effects of patriarchy, on both women and men? Anderson uses a Kantian model in particular to resist all positing of actual religious metaphysical entities, instead explaining ways religious symbols concretize regulative ideals of practical reason or possibilities for being in the world. In these ways and more, Anderson seems to fit squarely within new phenomenology’s trajectory. Are there nonarbitrary principles for her having been excluded? I would like to hear why or why not to include Anderson. Perhaps instead this can show us directions for new projects, where we might learn something new about Anderson by interpreting her work in light of other new phenomenologists.

III. “The New Phenomenology” Seems to Subordinate Phenomenology to Religious Symbols

In this last section, I want to develop a critical challenge to what strikes me as a peculiar narrowness affecting the new phenomenology trajectory as Simmons and Benson advance it so far. I am not convinced (yet) that the select new phenomenologists merely use religion (and theology) to illuminate or deepen their phenomenological impulse in the direction of philosophy of religion (see Simmons and Benson 2013, 74; see also 66 and 103–4). As Peter Jonkers writes, the point of contention is that “[the new phenomenologists’] use of religious ideas and concepts is not so much for the sake of religion as such, but is primarily motivated by their philosophical interest” (cited in Simmons and Benson 2013, 103). Levinas is particularly adamant about separating religion and philosophy, where he says to practice religion is not to be a thinker but that religious material (such as scriptural verses) can and must be examined and justified phenomenologically (Simmons and Benson 2013, 106).3 As Simmons and Benson emphasize, religion has a lot to offer philosophy, but phenomenology cannot appeal to religious sources as philosophically authoritative (Simmons and Benson 2013, 106). Of course, no one should be surprised that biblical matters have a place among “traditions of thought” that new phenomenologists study and critically examine in a phenomenological perspective (Simmons and Benson 2013, 110). We have all inherited a world where various religious myths have arisen within and shaped cultures. It only makes sense that some of us would study it explicitly (academically?4). As Simmons and Benson point out, Levinas and Chrétien in particular both affirm approaching religious traditions and theological archives as objects of phenomenological inquiry and possible inspirations for phenomenology itself (Simmons and Benson 2013, 110). (All of this seems like fitting descriptions of the selected new phenomenologists to me, and I emphasize it to bring out the echo of Tillich’s method of correlation.)

However, my basic question is why are there no thinkers from other religions or, really, why do none of these thinkers make use of the vast multitude of religious symbols across the globe if their impulse is foremost to deepen their phenomenological impulse? This may sound like a lament, but I intend it more as an accusation to indicate a narrowness in their vision. It strikes me as misleading to say that the new phenomenologists are “strikingly unified” on the relation(s) between phenomenology and religion “given that new phenomenology includes a diverse set of Christians (Marion, Chrétien, and Henry), an explicitly religious Jew (Levinas), and a Jew who ‘rightly passes as an atheist’ (Derrida)” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 102, my emphasis). This list does not strike me as that diverse. Or, put another way, I suspect a Neo-Confucian might not be able to tell them apart—not due to incompetence but due to the differences being minimal in a broader context. Indeed, this is one of Levinas’s expressed fears about an imminent global melting pot. He states:

Surely the rise of the countless masses of Asiatic and underdeveloped peoples threatens this new-found authenticity [of Jewish universalism]? On to the world stage come peoples and civilizations who no longer refer to our Sacred History, for whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob no longer mean anything. . . . Under the greedy eyes of these countless hordes . . . the Jews and Christians are pushed to the margins of history, and soon no one will bother any more to differentiate between [them] (1997, 165).

What? Or consider this other statement he makes: “I often say, though it’s a dangerous thing to say publicly, that humanity consists of the Bible and the Greeks. All the rest can be translated: all the rest—all the exotic—is dance” (Mortley 1991, 18). Presumably, this includes figures from the great Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr to the classical Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna to all the Yoruba practices and narratives concerning Olodumare. These statements from Levinas give expression to what seems to me to be implicit in the new phenomenology trajectory as it is developed and practiced so far—an intrinsic resisting of religious diversity where they put blinders on, and an unwarranted exclusivism about their own religion where they see their own religion as so right that others are not even worth considering. Perhaps this might seem unfair to them.

My point here is twofold. First, a part of hermeneutically self-aware phenomenology is to realize that the other breaks open one’s ego-centeredness (see Simmons and Benson 2013, 69), yet—at least on the surface—only one’s own purported religious tradition is considered relevant in seeking to deepen one’s phenomenological impulse here. Are new phenomenologists seeking out engagement with religious others? It does not appear so. Thich Nhat Hanh, as one of the most approachable representatives of Buddhism, was only a drive away for some of these thinkers. Is he just dancing? Despite seeming to be champions of otherness, or even of decentering stability, these thinkers do not seem particularly engaged with religious others. It is not as if we live in hermetically sealed religious communities and traditions. There is so much cultural exchange, one seems to have deliberately to restrict or close oneself off to others to not think with religious others and allow some elements to take influence in one’s religious experience and philosophical reflection. At the very least, the Christian and Jewish phenomenologists ought to be sufficiently familiar with Islamic thought since it formed a crucial moment in their own traditions—such as with Ibn Rushd’s influence on Aquinas and Spinoza.

This raises my second and perhaps more critically suspicious point: because they are not making use of conveniently available resources to deepen their phenomenological impulse, it then seems that their phenomenological impulse is merely in the service of their religion. I am particularly concerned about this with my investment in and commitment to the field of religious studies. As Max Muller said in his Introduction to the Science of Religion, “He who knows only one religion, knows none” (1873, 16).5 Part of the issue here is that if this is so, then to the degree that new phenomenologists do not engage with religions other than their own, then I am inclined to say they do not really know their own religion as a religion. That is, they cannot see their religious traditions and theological resources merely as archives for phenomenological imagination—even if they say that is what they are doing. They are said to follow their beloved wherever it may lead (Simmons and Benson 2013, 101). Presumably phenomenology is supposed to be their beloved, but it seems more so that their particular religion is their beloved. Why does it seem that their beloved never leads into, say, chanting Namo Amituofo to call out Amitabha’s name to be reborn in his pure land? How do they know ahead of time that the depth of their phenomenological impulse cannot be most fittingly expressed through symbols from Scientology or Shia Islam? Perhaps one really cannot serve two masters.

What this indicates to me is a lack of imagination—in the specific sense of a lack of imaginative variations to get at the depth or heart or “essence” of their subject matters. In this way, I want to critically challenge whether the new phenomenology is “phenomenology” (orthodox?). The point is that they seem deficient in imaginative variations needed for eidetic reductions. If our imaginative sets only include Christian (and maybe Jewish) symbols, then have we sufficiently varied things to be doing phenomenology at all? I realize they are working from within their embodied religious communities and traditions, but this seems to misrecognize both diversity within every community as well as exposure to multiple religious traditions in our everyday lifeworld. It seems to misrecognize that the very discourse of “traditions” is not essentialist, that traditions are composed of dynamics of both sedimentation and innovation (Dickman 2018). And in this way they continuously graft with, suture together, contrast with, and dissolve in light of alternative religious phenomena. It also comes off as a disingenuous use of embodiment as an excuse rather than as an opening and opportunity to seek out others.

I hope these considerations and the challenge open up to a next step in broadening our conception of where all phenomenology can still go.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Anderson, Pamela Sue. 1998. Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 2015. Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library / Open Road.

Bultmann, Rudolph. 1989. New Testament & Mythology: And Other Basic Writings. Edited and translated by S. Ogden. Grand Rapids: Fortress.

Cerbone, David R. 2006. Understanding Phenomenology. Durham, UK: Acumen.

Dickman, Nathan. 2018. “Feminisms and Challenges to Institutionalized Philosophy of Religion.” Religions 9.4: 113.

Guenther, Lisa. 2013. Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Idhe, Don. 2007. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. 2nd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 2007. Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference. Translated by A. Martin. Routledge Classics.

Janicaud, Dominique. 2000. “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology.” In Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, by Dominique Janicaud et al. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lee, Emily, ed. 2014. Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1997. “Jewish Thought Today.” In Difficult Freedom: Essays in Judaism, translated by Sean Hand. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Moran, Dermot. 2004. Introduction to Phenomenology. New York: Routledge.

Mortley, Raoul. 1991. French Philosophers in Conversation. New York: Routledge.

Müller, Max. 1873. Introduction to the Science of Religion. London: Longman, Green.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1998. Critique and Conviction: Conversations with François Azouvi and Marc de Launay. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 2010. “Religious Belief.” In A Passion for the Possible, edited by B. Treanor and H. Venema. New York: Fordham University Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Bruce Ellis Benson. 2013. The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury.

Sweetman, Brendan. 2007. Religion: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum.

Tillich, Paul. 2009. Dynamics of Faith. New York: HaperOne.

———. 1973. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Twiss, Sumner B., and Walter H. Conser Jr. 1992. Experience of the Sacred: Readings in the Phenomenology of Religion. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Wuthnow, Robert. 2007. America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Zahavi, Dan. 2018. “Phenomenology: Husserl’s Legacy.” Interview by Richard Marshall. 3:AM Magazine, January 27, 2018.

  1. I want to thank the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion’s Philosophy of Religion and Constructive Theologies sections for the opportunity to reflect on Simmons and Benson’s The New Phenomenology for the annual meeting in March 2018.

  2. This is also more or less Bultmann’s method of interpretation—explaining the existential meaning of religious symbols and myths.

  3. This sentiment seems shared across new French phenomenologists. Ricoeur refers to his own “schizophrenia” [sic] in expressing a similar sentiment (1998).

  4. I add this aside because I wonder if part of my problem here has to do with a different conception of what it means to study religion academically rather than, and perhaps even opposed to, studying it personally. What I want to know is whether new phenomenologists study Christianity or Judaism the same way they would study Nichiren Buddhism? If not, what might that mean about their approach to religious archives? I address this more explicitly below.

  5. Ricoeur tries to approach opportunities in experiences of religious diversity by analogy to learning multiple languages (Ricoeur 2010, 38). His own efforts, however, do not seem to live up to this opening and opportunity.

  • J. Aaron Simmons

    J. Aaron Simmons


    Reply to Nathan Eric Dickman

    I have learned a lot from Eric Dickman over the years. His global, hermeneutic, and critical approach to religious studies has, on many occasions, caused me to see blind spots in my own thinking. He rightly pushes philosophers of religion away from any narrowness regarding religious traditions, and impressively he does so while always constructively offering suggestions for how to move forward differently. I will reply to his contribution to this symposium by addressing his two considerations and also his main criticism.

    I. An Introduction to Phenomenology Syllabus

    In his contribution to this symposium, he imagines a possible syllabus for an undergraduate course entitled “An Introduction to Phenomenology.” As Dickman rightly notes, Bruce Benson and I certainly think that we should introduce this material to undergraduates. Indeed, as I noted in my reply to Tracey Stout, the main motivation for writing this book (early on) was to produce a text that was substantive and yet accessible for advanced undergraduates, or professional philosophers with non-continental backgrounds. However, I would hesitate to say that the reason we should teach undergraduates this material is because “we give students something to live up to,” as Dickman suggests (though I am not at all opposed to raising the bar and helping them reach it). Instead, I would say that the reason phenomenology should be taught to undergraduates, and why it is important as a philosophical movement more broadly, is because it helps us rigorously to pay attention to the world, others, and ourselves. This is an important intellectual, moral, and social habit to cultivate regardless of what one chooses as a college major or as a career.

    Dickman’s question of what to include as “crucial” for that course is a good one. Indeed, as discussed in my reply to Stout, what gets included or excluded is always an important aspect of any attempt to delineate a community of discourse, a methodological approach, or a research category. Yet, I worry that the notion of inclusion and exclusion with which we often work, as scholars and as social beings, are often dependent on stark dichotomies: something or someone is either in or out. In contrast, though, I propose that “radial categories” are better ways of approaching inclusion and exclusion relative to such definitions.

    Rather than saying something either is or isn’t a bird, say, we should ask what counts as the exemplar for the category of “bird” within some particular cultural context, or discursive community, and then check to see if some object X that is being considered for inclusion in the category “bird” is relevantly oriented toward that exemplar, or is better considered in relation to another exemplar for a different category. In this way, we should think of things radially—i.e., ripples moving out from a definitive center—instead of linearly—i.e., on this side or that side. This approach allows for important, and maybe essential, vagueness to function relative to our categories and our definitions (an idea I have worked out at length elsewhere) that I take to be reflective of the complexity of human linguistic and hermeneutic existence.

    As such, I propose that we shift Dickman’s question of what is crucial to include and instead ask, “What would we take to be exemplary of the sort of philosophical approach we are presenting/defining as ‘phenomenology’?” Once we get clear on why this rather than that is exemplary, we can then begin to articulate those aspects of it that are able to be considered necessary or sufficient, etc., to something’s being oriented toward a particular phenomenological radial center. This is what Bruce and I were trying to articulate when we spoke of the core commitments of new phenomenology—i.e., attributes that allow the radial center to be identifiable such that vagueness is subsequently possible in relation to it. This is also why we went with the language of “orthodoxy/heresy.”

    Orthodoxy is never ahistorically necessary, but instead becomes definitive precisely due to the way it has emerged within a particular contingent social history. So, the texts by Moran or Cerbone that Dickman suggests are both extremely good places to start in the attempt to understand the history, methodology, and approach that has emerged as “orthodox” phenomenology. That Moran and Cerbone discuss Derrida and Levinas need not mean that Derrida and Levinas are easily incorporated into that orthodoxy, but simply that they continue to be rightly defined relative to the radial center of phenomenology. That said, our goal in this book is not to introduce phenomenology, as such, but new phenomenology. In this way, our suggestion is that there is a group of philosophers (as distinct from theologians) who are rightly understood as oriented toward the radial center of phenomenology, but who find themselves far enough away from that center as to have motivated reasonable questions about whether they are really better thought of as oriented toward a different radial category—for example, as Janicaud suggests, theology.

    Moreover, this group of thinkers can also be taken up as their own radial category such that core commitments can then be discussed as characteristics of what would be exemplary of new phenomenology as distinct from classical phenomenology. As an analogy, let’s return to our example of the bird. Relative to the larger category of “bird” we might locate at some general remove from the center birds like falcons, eagles, and ospreys. We could then consider a narrower category, “birds of prey,” which would have its own center, and so on.

    That we end up focusing so heavily on the new phenomenologist’ approach to religion makes sense as an important aspect of any “introduction” to this philosophical trajectory when understood as its own category due to the objections that these examples are plausibly understood in relation to phenomenological philosophy, on the one hand, and phenomenological theology, on the other hand. Yet, as I explained in my response to Stout, our goal was not to focus on religion, as such, but on phenomenological excess. That religion shows up so often is reflective of the fact that phenomenological excess, as its own category, invites religious, ethical, and aesthetic phenomena as possible exemplars.

    Dickman’s point, then, that there are other ways to construct the “non-orthodox” or “heretical” phenomenological category is well taken. Sara Ahmed, Emily Lee, and Lisa Guenther are all sensible places to look if one were interested in thinking about new, and exciting, directions in contemporary phenomenology. However, it is unclear to me that any of these examples are concerned with the excess of phenomenality in the same sort of way that we identify as part of the exemplary center of new phenomenology. In other words, I have no interest in including them or excluding them from new phenomenology, but simply think that there are likely going to be a variety of philosophical trajectories that are rightly oriented in relation to a broad phenomenological center, but are far enough away from that center to invite being considered as their own radial categories.

    The diversity of phenomenology is most celebrated when we don’t try to make sure that everyone fits into every category, but that our categories are, themselves, plural and overlapping in ways that continue to make definitions difficult, but still functional for the critical work we do as scholars. For what it is worth, then, I would love to have our book on a syllabus featuring other works by Ahmed, Lee, and Guenther because I think it would allow for the types of critical questions about what counts as part of the core/center of phenomenology to be opened up in a variety of contrasting directions.

    To Dickman’s question of why we should choose the “religious” themes considered in our book instead of the themes of sexual, racial, or social identity engaged by these other scholars, I simply say that I don’t see the conflict as starkly as he does. We can’t do everything, but it does seem to me that by interrogating the stakes of phenomenal excess, we are likely to run up against important aspects of embodiment that would rightly invite us to go beyond the thinkers considered in our book in order to think more deeply about those issues. Yet, I can also imagine reading Ahmed or Lee and asking about the stakes of phenomenality more broadly that might attend the possibilities of understanding the givenness of identity as an embodied phenomenon such that one might turn to our book to explore such issues.

    Just as no one book can do it all, no single class can either. Accordingly, I would push back on the idea that our book is better suited for a course on Christian theology than it is in an introduction to phenomenology course. Indeed, I am not sure that I would immediately turn to our book, or to Ahmed’s, or to Guenther’s for such an introduction to phenomenology—all of these examples are, again, perhaps too far from the radial center of classical phenomenology to be the best starting points. Yet, all of them would be viable and helpful places to go toward the end of the course as we think about the radicalization, expansion, or diversification of phenomenology (as historically understood and practiced).

    II. On Criteria for Belonging

    To be honest, although I have suggested above that I think the focus on the excess of phenomenality is different in the figures that we highlight and those that Dickman suggests might be included, I don’t want to push this point too far or too firmly. At the end of the day, I just don’t really care that much about who is “in” or “out” among the new phenomenologists. Our book focused on those figures who have historically be associated with the “theological turn” of French phenomenology and we argue that there has never been such a turn.

    To suggest, then, that the unifying thread of new phenomenology is religion is odd to me. Our claim is that religious, ethical, and aesthetic phenomena are likely to be good places to turn to consider phenomenal excess. In so doing, it is also important to open up phenomenological philosophy in ways that require us to rethink some historically important components: horizon, intentionality, the as such, etc. Given the prominence of the objection that new phenomenology is better understood in relation to the radial category of theology, than it is to the radical category of philosophy, our articulation of “new phenomenological philosophy of religion” was an attempt to show how philosophical engagements with the category of religion, as such, or phenomena often considered “religious,” allowed for philosophically phenomenological approaches. Distinguishing between phenomenological theology and phenomenological philosophy of religion emerged as an important claim in the book due to the continental history in which the book itself emerged, but in no way should be read as a suggestion that new phenomenology is somehow necessarily concerned with religion. We tried to make this clear in the book, but maybe we could have done more on that front. My professional experience, though, is that any engagement with religion ends up leading to a host of unwarranted assumptions being made about the person attempting such engagement.

    Regarding Dickman’s specific suggestions, then, Beauvoir’s account of the ambiguity of ethics might indeed be a good place to turn to consider issues related to phenomenal excess. Ahmed’s approach to sexual orientation, or Irigaray’s account of gender difference, might be good places to turn as well. To include them in our book, however, would have been to take one more normative step than we were attempting to take. Our goal was not to say what new phenomenology should be, or how expansively it should be understood, but instead to try to lay out a plausible account of a radial center that reflects the history of the field and that would then invite the very sort of questions and suggestions that Dickman is now offering.

    In an example of this very point, but moving in a different direction, Dickman himself notes that Pamela Sue Anderson, Paul Tillich, and Rudoph Bultmann “do not usually get grouped” with Levinas, Marion, Henry, etc. Similarly, Beauvoir and Irigaray are similarly not usually considered in relation to the specific questions being asked in our book. Perhaps this is reason to be critical of how things are “usually grouped.” Hopefully others will write books pushing things in these more normatively expansive directions. Notice, though that we also don’t offer any engagement between the new phenomenologists and Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Reinhold Niebuhr. Instead, given the importance of articulating the possibility of phenomenological philosophy of religion in relation to the history of the debates and the objections on offer therein, we chose to try to expand the “usual groupings” by bringing Levinas, Marion, Henry, and others into conversation with analytic philosophy of religion.

    I have nothing but support for such expansive engagements occurring in other directions—but those directions just didn’t make as much thematic sense for us given the aims of this book and the specific context in relation to which it was written. So, to Dickman’s questions about who gets included, my response (again, I am only speaking for myself here—Bruce may cash things out a bit differently), is that if there are good reasons to bring other voices into the new phenomenological radial category that we have tried to articulate, that sounds wonderful. Nonetheless, I don’t see that as an objection to the book as written, but a reason to think that other books also need to be written. I sincerely hope that Dickman will write them.

    III. On the Subordination of Phenomenology to Religious Symbols

    I am not entirely sure how to respond to this last critique from Dickman. Wishing that the new phenomenologists had a more globally aware appreciation of cultural traditions historically labeled “religious” is understandable—indeed in my own work over the past several years I have intentionally tried to advocate for such cross-cultural engagement within the philosophy of religion more broadly. But, it is a non sequitur to suggest that somehow there is a limitation to their philosophical approach because their own specific awareness of world “religious” traditions is limited. Accordingly the charge that “because they are not making use of conveniently available resources to deepen their phenomenological impulse, it then seems that their phenomenological impulse is merely in the service of their religion,” strikes me as a possible critique of the individual intentions of specific authors (though my own research in the area does not lead me to support such a conclusion), but it misses the mark as a claim about the larger methodological claims about new phenomenology as a philosophical trajectory.

    Again, and I feel like I am getting too repetitive on this point, new phenomenology, as such, is not about religion. It is about exploring the limits of phenomenality, about phenomenal excess, about playing at the boundaries of where that which appears and the unapparent become difficult to tease apart. So, trying to offer a robust phenomenological account of religion would, as Dickman suggests, require a more global approach to what is being claimed as a singular, or, alternatively, universal, phenomenon. But, none of these thinkers attempt that task. Turning to the religious archives in which they find themselves makes sense as phenomenological case studies offering evidential resources for exploring the philosophical questions being asked. In the end, I worry that Dickman is criticizing them for failing adequately to address a question that they weren’t really even asking in the first place.

    Let me close by repeating my claim that I hope Dickman writes the book that does “broaden our conception of where phenomenology can still go.” That would be a very beneficial book indeed and one that I would certainly include on my own syllabi. Maybe Bruce and I should have written that book. We didn’t, though, because we never intended to do so. To suggest that our book is problematic or limited because it didn’t do everything that still remains to be done is kind of like suggesting that a trip from Tampa to Atlanta is a failure because it didn’t get us to Denver. Whether it is a failure or not depends on where it was that one was trying to go. I applaud where Dickman’s phenomenological trip is headed and I very much want to go there with him (or at least read the narrative of his travels), but as I see it, getting from Tampa to Denver probably requires first getting to Atlanta in order to figure out the best way to approach the next leg of the trip. As such, I hope that The New Phenomenology, for all its shortcomings, at least invites us to explore possibilities for our moving in directions that Henry, Levinas, or Marion, themselves, might not have pursued.

    • Avatar

      Nathan Eric Dickman


      Is Imaginative Variation a Core of the New Phenomenological Trajectory?

      I appreciate your helpful response and many clarifications. I understand that Benson and yourself are out to explain the new phenomenological trajectory as about limits and excess of phenomenality, as about porousness of boundaries of the apparent and unapparent. These are the unifying threads of the trajectory. I also understand that the new phenomenological trajectory is not restricted to being about religion or being religious, as Janicaud asserts in the accusation of the “theological” turn. This trajectory is open for further contributions from critical race theory, queer theory, crip theory, religious diversity, physics, orthodox phenomenology, feminisms, and more. I want to keep going on an issue about which I do not yet feel satisfied.

      I think it may be helpful to reframe our dialogue concerning my third topic—that the new phenomenologists subordinate phenomenology to their religious commitments. Your response has helped me to clarify that my criticism is not about your text or aimed at the thinking of Benson and yourself. The criticism is, instead, of Levinas et al. What I find to be among the benefits of The New Phenomenology is that this text both makes possible and clarifies my questions and concerns about the new phenomenologists’ (seeming) religious commitments. So, I want to keep straight these two different topics: on the one hand, criticisms about Benson and Simmons’ text itself and the broad new phenomenological trajectory; and on the other hand, criticisms of Levins et al. that Benson and Simmons’ text helps make possible. When I lament—“Why didn’t they look to conveniently available imaginative archives in other religious traditions?”—the pronoun refers to Levinas et al., not Benson and Simmons. In fact, without The New Phenomenology, it would be more difficult to notice what I am claiming is their (Levinas et al.) oversight. I realize that such an objection goes beyond the scope of what Benson and yourself set out to do in your text—that you all set out for a “trip from Tampa to Atlanta,” and that I seem to be over here talking about how it would be so great to go to “Denver” instead. I see how this objection misses the mark of where the new phenomenological trajectory has gone and where it still may go. Like I said, I am not trying to say something about the larger methodological claims about new phenomenological trajectories, but about exemplary representatives of it so far. My concern, like yours, is to advocate for phenomenology and its trajectories, and defend it from dismissals.

      So, let me try restating my apparent non sequitur this way: I’m not talking about Benson’s and your “trip from Tampa to Atlanta,” but their “trip from Tampa to Atlanta” (where “Tampa” represents their religious archives, and “Atlanta” represents their insights for the new phenomenological trajectory). I am also not saying, or at least not trying to say, that I wish they would have gone to “Denver” instead (where I do not take “Denver” to represent alternative religious archives, but to represent something more akin to interreligious dialogue or perennial philosophy). I am saying, or at least trying to say, that because they did not turn to alternative religious archives within their own experience already, they are probably misrecognizing their use of the new phenomenological trajectory to support their preferred religious tradition(s).

      You write, “Turning to the religious archives in which they find themselves makes sense as phenomenological case studies offering evidential resources for exploring the philosophical questions being asked” (Simmons 2019). I am asking why they found themselves only within certain religious archives rather than other religious archives as the most pertinent case studies for evidential resources, since most people find themselves in varieties of religious archives? To get from Tampa to Atlanta by whatever mode of transportation, we go through a variety of contexts and experiences. To mix up the model a little: there is no exclusively Christian way to Atlanta or exclusively Jewish way to Atlanta. One might make a pit-stop at a restaurant with a “Laughing Buddha.” One might ride an escalator with a fellow traveler wearing a niqab. One might get lost and end up near a Scientology center. Surely Levinas et al. had similar such experiences? Were they too prejudiced to recognize them as further religious archives? Eboo Patel writes, “Religious prejudice is a serious problem, and it ought to be considered just as un-American as racism or sexism” (Patel 2013, 68). I want to put it this way: religious prejudice is a serious problem, and should be considered un-phenomenological. I do not yet know whether this accusation against them is too harsh or not.

      Insofar as phenomenology involves imaginative variation to promote rigorous eidetic reduction, it seems that they (not Benson and yourself) did not vary phenomenal archives sufficiently. Imaginative variation does not appear on the list of topics over which new phenomenologists pose challenges to orthodox phenomenologists (see Simmons and Benson 2013, 13). Thus, I do not agree that my criticism of them is a non sequitur, although it may be a non sequitur if we take what I am saying as about Benson’s and your text. I think it may be helpful if I pose this as a question for further engagement: Is free variation, like horizonality and intentionality, rejected within the new phenomenological trajectory? And, if so, why? Or, if not, why not? This might be a decent place to keep the conversation going.

      Patel, Eboo. 2013. Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. Boston: Beacon.

      Simmons, J. Aaron, and Bruce Ellis Benson. 2013. The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury.

      Simmons, J. Aaron. 2019. “Reply to Nathan Eric Dickman.” Syndicate.

    • J. Aaron Simmons

      J. Aaron Simmons


      Rejoinder to Nathan Eric Dickman

      As always, Eric, thinking with you pushes me to wrestle with my own assumptions in critical and yet constructive ways. I deeply appreciate that.

      I continue to think that we are not as far apart as it might seem, but simply that we are differently oriented toward what we take to be most important about where we both find ourselves.

      Let’s begin where you end. Patel’s comment regarding the immoralism of “religious prejudice” (and your suggestion that it is un-phenomenological) is a serious charge, but it requires fleshing out in very specific ways in order to avoid conflations that would minimize its critical bite. In particular, if by religious prejudice we mean that there is some sort of difference in moral dignity relative to various religions, then I get the comparison to racism and sexism. To suggest that someone is less good or less deserving of respect and legal protections, etc. due to their religious identity is not only rightly illegal within an American context (and many other global communities), but also straightaway immoral. Given some of the comments that you cite in your original contribution regarding the seeming dismissiveness Levinas shows to some other religious traditions, I am guessing that this is where you are finding Patel’s point to gain traction as a critique of Levinas’s (and maybe the other new phenomenologists’) views.

      Look, I have no desire to defend any of their specific comments regarding their views of specific religious traditions, in fact, for the sake of argument, let’s grant that they are all guilty of immoral discriminatory views of those associated with other religions (again, I think that there is a lot to say about why this is not something that needs granted, but let that be as it may). Even if that were the case, I don’t see how this has anything to do with phenomenological methodology. To suggest that Heidegger was bad at phenomenology due to his nationalist and racist commitments seems wrongheaded to me. We should instead simply say that he was in a variety of ways a bad person worthy of serious moral critique. But, being good at a particular philosophical method (whether phenomenological or not) is not something that I think is likely to lead to especially praiseworthy moral lives.

      The history of philosophy is long marked by moral mistakes by thinkers who are models of how to think critically, even if they are rightly chastised for what they took to be true as a result of their thinking. The point is that there is a difference between process and product. There is a difference between how we do something and what it is that we are doing. I admit that there might be some cases in which the what yields a specific recommendation of how to proceed, or the how invites particular frames in which the what is able to best be understood. But, we need to be careful not to conflate an epistemological register with a metaphysical one.

      This is where my own perplexity begins regarding what is really meant by “religious prejudice.” I worry that this idea sometimes can indicate, in broader cultural and academic discussions, is not the illegal and immoral view of other religious people as “lesser” than the members of one’s own religion, but instead the notion that it is immoral not to claim that all religions are somehow equally true or effective relative to salvation, etc. So, on this second version, someone would display religious prejudice by holding to the truth of exclusivist soteriology, or even to the idea that there is an incompatibility at the level of truth across religious traditions. Yet here we are crossing from a view about moral and legal protections of persons regardless of religious identity, to a view about the truth of a universalist soteriology and a compatibilist theory of religious truth. If that is what religious prejudice means then I don’t see displaying religious prejudice as obviously problematic. Everyone should think that what they believe is true, or they shouldn’t believe it. And if they believe that it is true then they should believe that it is supportable by the best reasons, all things considered. So, in this sense, I don’t see it as problematic that Levinas might hold that Judaism gets things right in ways that Christianity does not, or that Chrétien might understand Christianity as more plausible than Hinduism for a variety of reasons, or that Derrida might take atheism (of a very particular sort) to “rightly describe” his own view.

      I entirely agree with you that there are epistemic problems with thinking that certainty or clarity are ever easily achieved regarding religious truth or practice. This is why I think something like “free variation” makes tons of sense within phenomenological method. Let a thousand phenomenological flowers bloom. As such, there is nothing to be gained by defending some sort of purity test regarding religious identity – to extend our metaphor of traveling from Tampa to Atlanta, it is entirely sensible to think that one would have to change planes, or sometimes get rerouted, or hop on a bus for a while, in order to end up where you were trying to go. But, to suggest that there is some sort of virtue that is inherent in doing so requires an additional, and differently oriented, argument.

      Sure, lots of folks are more or less inclusive and plural in their own religious conceptions, but we need to be careful not to think that there is a moral gain in being pluralist – it might just lead to confusion. Alternatively, we should be equally careful not to think that there is a moral gain in being dogmatically narrow – it might just lead to error and arrogance.

      So, if religious prejudice is about immoral discrimination and views of moral superiority attending to one’s religious identity, then yes we should resist that on all fronts. But, I don’t see how that has anything to do with a particular notion of philosophical method.

      Alternatively, if religious prejudice is meant as a critique of people who think that what they believe internal to an historical religious community is true and such truth commitments would require them to think that other beliefs held internal to other religious communities are false, then I don’t see why religious prejudice is actually problematic – indeed, it seems like it would just describe the important critical agonism that accompanies genuine truth-seeking. Yet, here too I don’t see how such views attend to anything one way or another regarding phenomenology.

      Nonetheless, I do think that you are very much on to something regarding a possible limitation within new phenomenology as concerns the general narrow focus of contemporary philosophy of religion. It seems to me that your critique is best understood and rightly directed as a challenge to the limited set of phenomena engaged by the new phenomenologists. In this sense, their focus is better described as a phenomenological consideration of particular expressions of specific historical manifestations of religious traditions. In principle, this challenge seems entirely right to me. This is why I try in my own research and teaching to stress the importance of globally aware, critically engaged, and hermeneutically responsible approaches to such complicated categories as “religion,” “faith,” “God,” “ritual,” etc. This is why I genuinely meant it when I said I hope that you write the book that Bruce and I did not write – someone needs to do that. A global phenomenology, or a critical phenomenological consideration of global religion, say, is much needed in the field in ways that would open the sorts of debates to which you and I both contribute to new voices, new perspectives, and new phenomena that might otherwise have limited our understanding. Again, though, I think that this is a critique better targeted toward philosophical considerations of “religion,” not somehow distinctively situated in a phenomenological context.

      With that said, though, I still would suggest that no single thing can do everything. If I am right that new phenomenology is not “about” religion, but about excess, then I just don’t agree that a maximally pluralistic explanation of how that excess would occur in global ways is somehow a better phenomenology – even though it might be a better philosophy of religion. It would just be a differently oriented phenomenology. Yet, I take it that only if the new phenomenologists are right about the way that excessive phenomenality is possible relative to a variety of modes of appearing, could we then make sense of legitimate phenomenological inquiries into other religious traditions in which such excess would be discoverable therein. That is, new phenomenological discourse is about a how, not a specific what. The “whats” (Life, the Face, Liturgy, Saturation, the Call, or whatever) proposed by specific new phenomenologists are best viewed as case studies proving a general methodological point. There may be good reasons to think that Chrétien’s account is more compelling than Derrida’s, say, but that is a secondary question to the idea that they both have demonstrated that phenomenology is not restricted to a narrow conception of givenness, appearance, or possibility.

      Back to our metaphor: I take it that the new phenomenological point is that getting to Atlanta is possible at all. That there are other ways, and maybe better ways, to get there, is conditioned by the truth of such a possibility. To critique them for not taking a different route might be valid if they claim that there are no other such routes, but that is a metaphysical debate overlaid on what were offered as epistemic claims. Such a debate is well worth having, but that would require that truth really does matter and that it is possible to be wrong about things – hence religious prejudice can’t possibly be a critique of exclusivist truth claims (if it were, then I don’t know what it would mean even to hold that it is true that religious prejudice should be avoided in the first place).

    • Avatar

      Nathan Eric Dickman


      Might New Phenomenology be Made in the Image of Christian Philosophy?

      I respect your generosity of reading of the new phenomenologists, and I appreciate your continuing to engage with my criticisms of them. I agree we are not far apart in affirming phenomenology, and I think we are saying similar things but with different emphases. Where I want to read them suspiciously, you seem to read them charitably. I see how my critique, as you frame it, might be best understood as a challenge to the limited set of phenomena engaged by new phenomenologists so far—where they consider particular expressions within their traditions but where others of us might work from alternative expressions. And I see how my challenge, as you frame it, might be best suited toward phenomenologies of religion and not the broader trajectories of new phenomenology as a method as you lay it out.

      I hear your disagreement. A maximally global or pluralistic explanation of excess does not necessarily result in a better phenomenology, even if it might be a better philosophy of religion. If the new phenomenologists are correct about excessive phenomenality, then—as you point out—we can make sense of legitimately phenomenological inquiries about excess within alternative religious archives. And, if my accusation of religious prejudice is merely a critique of exclusivism and promotion of pluralism, then that distorts new phenomenology from an epistemic method into a metaphysic.

      I’m not trying to say all that to come off as pedantic, but to just say back to you what I read you as saying so that you can tell me whether or not I understand what you’re saying. I don’t want to drift too far from your text into issues perhaps more fitting for my hopefully-one-day book, so in what follows I want also to return to specifics in your text. I want to do two things: explain how the charge of religious prejudice is not to advance a Hick-like pluralism, and then explain what it has to do with phenomenological method.

      Before getting into it, I just want to note I’m glad you affirm free variation—I wonder then if we can also place eidetic reduction as among the core of the new phenomenological trajectory? Sometimes that’s how I read discussions of phenomenality and excessiveness.

      First, I hear and sympathize with your worry about bullying (my word) into something like Hick’s metaphysical pluralism (which is different from Patel’s and Wuthnow’s sociological sense of pluralism [Wuthnow 2005]). I think we can call this a “compulsory metaphysical pluralism” of often left-leaning social circles who tend to participate in the “coexist” bumper-sticker campaign. In these circles, it’s hip to say, “All religions are the same, really.” In such circles, it’s considered somehow immoral not to claim all religious traditions are equally true or effective ways to salvation. Many students believe this is how they should speak in World Religions courses. It is not clear, though, that pluralism is any more moral than exclusivism, like you said. So, I agree that in this specific way, there does not seem to be anything intrinsically problematic about Levinas holding that Judaism gets things correct that Christianity gets wrong, or about Chrétien holding Christianity gets things correct that Hinduism gets wrong. I want to break this down a little more, though, because I think that the Levinas and Chrétien examples are relevantly distinct.

      We know there is no such thing as “reverse-racism” and “reverse-sexism,” however much an individual might have prejudice, because racism is rooted in systemically unjust institutions of privilege and power in favor of white men as a whole. We know it is not enough just not to be racist; we need to be actively anti-racist. Similarly, most people today live in a compulsory Christiancentric global culture, where—for example—our standard era-dating system for economic markets is intrinsically Christian even when purportedly secularized to the “Common Era.” Because of this, I want to say there is extra accountability on self-identifying Christians like Chrétien to go above and beyond to ensure spaces of intellectual inquiry are hospitable. Let’s say that Chrétien actually does believe that Christianity gets some things right that Hinduism gets wrong. I do not believe it’s possible for Chrétien to be sufficiently responsible or hospitable in inquiries about Hinduism. That is, his judgment of those things that he thinks Hinduism gets “wrong” is based on inadequate hospitable research, at least from what I know of Chrétien’s background and works. However, Levinas, as identifying with Judaism, can responsibly judge that Christianity gets some things wrong—at least he can in this model paralleling the impossibility of “reverse-sexism.”

      I think there is a more crucial thing to get at here, though. We also know that categories and taxonomies of so-called “world religions,” and—along with these—the categories of pluralism and exclusivism, are themselves complicit with Euro-Christian hegemony (see Masuzawa 2005). That is, “Hinduism,” or “Islam,” or “Christianity,” or “Atheism,” or what have you, are social constructs—which is not that they do not have real effects, such as how they have historically served Euro-Christian interests. You and Benson show that this is often in mind throughout your text, as well as in your replies to me. For example, in your discussion of Marion’s “Christian Philosophy,” you note that one might buy it without necessarily sharing “his specific Catholic heritage…” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 176). For another example, in your reply above, you note that Derrida’s atheism is “of a very particular sort.”

      My point here, though, is that it’s not only that Chrétien’s judgment Christianity gets some things righter than Hinduism is based on inadequate research, it’s that it is extremely difficult to make a coherent judgment about diverse traditions of India that have come to be called “Hinduism” or about numerous traditions grouped together under “Christianity.” How could Chrétien ever study traditions of India that have come to be called “Hinduism” sufficiently to have any sense that diverse traditions under “Christianity” gets some things right, but “Hinduism” gets the things wrong? In this framework, the same goes for Levinas—there is no “Judaism” pure and simple that could have some things righter than “Christianity.” There’s no “atheism,” either, as you indicate—where I would add that Derrida’s “atheism” is something quite different from the pop militancy of Ricky Gervais. (We could probably return here to your earlier points about radial definitions, where I prefer something more like Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance.”)

      The same goes for Hick’s pluralism, or it might even be more severe for this. It’s not possible for all religions to be essentially the same or for there to be an underlying unified universal soteriology because “religion” is itself a construct emergent within Eurocentric contexts. I’m not trying to say anything radical here, but simply to reiterate what has come to be commonly accepted aspects of the academic study of religion that you show awareness of throughout your text (see Simmons and Benson 2013, 174, with the discussion of insights from postcolonial theory). While we can say there is Euro-Christian hegemony, it is not clear there is “Christian” hegemony. This plays out in supersessionistic phrases like “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” which erases millennia of anti-Semitism in a supposed contemporary solidarity. Or phrases like “the Christian tradition” suggest there is just one or “the” Christianity. Are LDS included or excluded from this?

      What does this have to do with phenomenological method? My concern with the above is not so much about new phenomenologists having or not having immoral discriminatory views about people with alternative religious commitments. My concern is not really to advocate for Hick’s pluralism. Instead, what strikes me as probable is that their religious prejudice affects their development of phenomenological method in such a way that it “stacks the deck.” My problem is not that they are prejudiced in the specific sense that we all start from our historical situation. My worry is about the tyranny of hidden prejudices to affect the development of phenomenological method. As Gadamer says, “The tyranny of hidden prejudices makes us deaf” (Gadamer 2013, 281). To try to avoid the ableism, tyrannically hidden prejudices inhibit understanding. It’s not the prejudice (as historically situated beings), but the tyrannical hidden-ness of it—perhaps a “willful ignorance.”

      Regarding the point about Heidegger, then, I agree that being good at phenomenology doesn’t necessarily make you a good person, just like being good at “ethics” doesn’t necessarily make you a good person (see Goldhill 2019). However, it does seem appropriate to say that to be good at phenomenology, or hermeneutic phenomenology (see Ricoeur 1975), means you need to be proficient at rendering your prejudices vulnerable to critique. We expose tyrannically hidden prejudices by making them explicit, testing them, and revising them, especially in engagement with others. Although Heidegger himself may not have done so with, say, his descriptions of Dasein, this seems to be what was accomplished by others such as Levinas. My problem is that when I try to do something similar with Chrétien (or even Ricoeur at times), employing their phenomenological methods in alternative contexts, it is difficult for me to see it work out. It is as if the deck is stacked in the interest of perpetuating Euro-Christian hegemony when we were trying to do phenomenology.

      For a closing example and contrast, I want to look at your description of Marion’s distinction between “Christian Philosophy” as a hermeneutic or a heuristic (Simon and Benson 2013, 167-176). As a hermeneutic, it is merely a derivative interpretation of primary—not distinctively Christian—phenomena. It is just a “possible option” where “the category of philosophy would be essentially and normatively prior to any Christian interpretation of philosophical concepts” (Simon and Benson 2013, 171). As a heuristic, though, it offers—through “Christian Revelation”—new “natural phenomena” for study (ibid., 172). These new phenomena—such as “face,” “history,” and more—are only shown through “Christian Revelation.” These can even be used critically by “non-Christians” because symbols and concepts “become part of one’s tradition once they are introduced therein… [The symbols and concepts] become a matter of philosophical debate” (ibid., 173; my emphasis). Marion even lists philosophers who do not self-identify as “Christians” in some nominal sense, and calls them “Christian” in the sense of being immersed in discourses and traditions permeated by Christian symbols. (As an aside, this all strikes me as similar to Tillich, Ricoeur, and Pamela Sue Anderson’s work on symbols giving rise to thought. I mean that as a compliment)

      My issue is not the heuristic part, or even the description of someone like Feuerbach as Christian in a historical sense (in fact, I sometimes consider Feuerbach more Christian than many who claim the identity fanatically). My issue also is not the risk of ubiquity, where because someone speaks within European influenced society one is more or less fluent in Christianity. My issue is that it strikes me as either naïve or self-serving on Marion’s part to say there is a distinctively “Christian Revelation.” It strikes me as either naïve or self-serving to say there is a singularly stable “tradition” to which one belongs. Which traditions? Whose Christianity? It is as if Marion is “just being honest” about historical influences of “Christianity” on philosophical discourse, and it is this sense of “just being honest” that raises a red flag for me. While you and Benson show awareness of this, Marion does not seem to. I think this is where our main difference is. You read Marion generously and charitably on this—applauding him and perhaps even sharing his optimism (Simmons and Benson 2013, 176). I read him suspiciously, as probably placating and perpetuating unjust “Christian” supremacy.

      I want to contrast this with Gadamer’s discussion of certain Christian influences on philosophizing about the word “word” (see Gadamer 2013, 436-444). For me, the contrast is that Gadamer neither celebrates nor expresses regret about such influences. He seems to simply acknowledge facts of our historical inheritances. He does not indicate personal commitment, but also does not indicate worry about sounding “too Christian” to be taken seriously. I bring Gadamer in here because his use of “tradition,” too, is helpful for explaining that historical studies involves alienation both within and from tradition, an illusory alienation that philosophical hermeneutics works to overcome (ibid., 294-295). Yet Marion purportedly offers his claim about “Christian Philosophy” to “the historian, not the philosopher or theologian, for confirmation or refutation” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 175; my emphasis).

      To bring the threads together into a question: Is Marion optimistic about Christian Philosophy because it can be consistent with new phenomenology, or is Marion optimistic because new phenomenology was made to be consistent with Christian Philosophy? If “the Christ-narrative” is such an influential event in our history, it seems difficult to know that new phenomenology is not made in its image.

      Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 2013. Truth and Method, 2nd revised edition. Translated by J. Weinshimer and D. Marshall. New York: Bloomsbury.

      Goldhill, Olivia. 2019. “A study of ethicists finds they’re no more ethical than the rest of us (and no better at calling their mothers).” Quartz.

      Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

      Ricoeur, Paul. 1975. “Phenomenology and Hermeneutics.” Nous 9(1): 85–102.

      Simmons, J. Aaron, and Bruce Ellis Benson. 2013. The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury.

      Wuthnow, Robert. 2007. America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    • J. Aaron Simmons

      J. Aaron Simmons


      Rejoinder 2.0 to Nathan Eric Dickman

      Let me again stress my appreciation for this engagement. It is helping me to see where some lines of distinction are genuinely in need of stressing and where others might warrant some erasure.

      I will keep my reply short here simply because I have probably already treaded too heavily upon the attention span of readers here at Syndicate (given how long my initial replies to the contributions are).

      Your account of my rejoinder was very much on point. I think you did a better job summarizing my view than I did in initially formulating it. So, a few points just in response to the specific considerations that you give regarding Chrétien and Marion.

      First, let me be clear that the suggestion of possible points of conflict between Chrétien’s Christianity and Hinduism was entirely mine. I know of nowhere in Chrétien’s corpus where he specifically engages in such cross-religious comparative work (and even if he did, I am not sure how he would view the possibility of Christian-Hindu engagement). My point was purely meant as a hypothetical regarding the distinction between metaphysical truth claims and epistemic hospitality. Namely, we can be exclusivist regarding truth, humble regarding how we hold it, and hospitable to others who see things differently. These are not incompatible – and, as I see it, it is only when we do take truth claims to be potentially exclusive (contra Hick’s pluralism) can we genuinely be hospitable. In other words, in order to avoid any epistemic colonialism, as it were, it is important that different views actually be allowed to be different. Only as such could they also possibly be true in ways that would require revising one’s own views (but the opposite is also the case – hospitality requires admitting that the other might hold false views).

      With that clarification in place, I readily admit that the new phenomenologists, like all historically situated thinkers, are likely to be limited in their exposure to the specific dynamics in place in alternative cultural traditions. So, it is without any disagreement that I acknowledge that Levinas’s take on Islam, say, or Chrétien’s take on Hinduism, or Derrida’s take on Pentecostalism, for example (again, all of these are merely imagined, not specifically referring to anything in their thought), are likely to display assumptions that are rooted in their own cultural frameworks and hermeneutic default settings.

      I wonder though if here your point about such limitations actually cuts against your conclusions regarding phenomenology. Your points about the very plausible limitations of the ability of not just new phenomenologists, but most scholars, to draw deeply on global traditions in ways that are appropriately aware of the dynamics in those traditions might lead some to the conclusion that it is better not to even mention alternative traditions than to do so badly. Yet, I think it would be a great step in the right direction for lots of philosophers of religion (analytic and continental) to start trying to open their work and the broader discourse up to global insights. Again, not because there is necessarily some metaphysical truth to be had in pluralism, but because we are more likely to avoid epistemic mistakes when we are maximally engaged with possible criticisms. The basic point, which J.S. Mill understood so well, is that when we hear different (and opposing) views, we either correct our false belief, or reinforce it with more clarity. But, that said, we need to be careful not to lace the dialogical field with land mines.

      Perhaps we could say that the hospitality that needs to be shown to different traditions and perspectives should also be extended such that we admit that misunderstandings are going to be common and yet infrequently intentionally vicious. As such, it seems to me that we have to avoid two temptations. On the one hand, we need to avoid being self-protective out of fear of making cross-cultural missteps in the attempt to be hospitable. ON the other hand, we need to avoid being wary of drawing on one’s own tradition as a case study for phenomenological reflection, for fear of being too narrow. Only when we decidedly draw upon what we know (given where we stand) and then invite engagement, conversation, criticism, and constructive challenge from others (who stand elsewhere) can we take others seriously while hopefully avoiding being either patronizing in our appropriation, or merely ignorant in our refusal to engage in the first place.

      Yet, as I see it, this all means that when it comes to someone like Marion, we find a specific consideration of the phenomenological conditions of experience that make possible the sort of cross-cultural engagement that you and I both support. That Marion, himself, draws primarily (maybe exclusively) on his own Catholic set of data is not necessarily problematic, but is likely going to offer a limited account that would, consistent with his own phenomenological meta-analysis, be benefited from an expanded data set.

      Ultimately, then, I still don’t see the criticism as hitting its mark in quite the way that you suggest. As a general point, it seems incontestable that philosophy of religion should become more globally aware, but as a specific point about new phenomenology, I see more here that stands as resources for this expansive engagement than I do that stands as obstacles for such a project.



Phenomenality in the Mystics and Existential Relations

In The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction, the authors J. Aaron Simmons and Bruce Ellis Benson attempt to give a shape to “a living philosophy,” a philosophy that “continues to develop” (Simmons and Benson 2013, 1). They compare the work they are doing in defining phenomenology to the work that Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin have done to give a shape to a similarly ever-changing contemporary philosophy: pragmatism. Simmons and Benson call the discipline that they are shaping “new phenomenology” (1). The New Phenomenology, as a text, is very precisely meant to be widening a reader’s understanding of what counts as phenomenology, which is, I would posit, a worthwhile goal for any specific academic discipline. I have never been particularly impressed with the narrow division of disciplines that seem to define, and sometimes give credence to, so much of academia and academic inquiry. Yet, in pursuing this goal, the text raises a question that any text which is attempting to make a discipline more inclusive will raise: what should be excluded from the broadened category? In this case we could wonder: What is not phenomenology? I propose that this question might become more difficult to find a conclusive response to when the style of the text being perused for an answer is one that is itself a study in inclusivity and generosity. Indeed, these qualities, which I claim are not necessarily common to philosophical texts, could give us the feeling that we may squeeze almost any philosophical problem under the heading of “new phenomenology.” Thus, in order to stay clear throughout my own response to the text, and precisely because I want to honor Simmons and Benson’s achievement of both widening the bounds of the discipline while also saying something substantive about what can be counted as phenomenology, I will shape my response to their work by looking at the three main theses for which they argue.

The first of these theses is that “new phenomenology can be legitimately considered an heir to historical phenomenology when understood as a general path of inquiry into phenomenality, rather than a rigid perspective that holds a set of stable doctrines regarding phenomenality and the modes in which particular phenomena appear” (7). When reading this I immediately tried to imagine a phenomenology that would somehow be separate, or be working to actively distance itself, from its historical background. At first blush, it seems to me that any particular study of the phenomenal world would be influenced by those concepts written into history through the pen of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Indeed, my own knowledge of the bounds of what could and should be considered phenomenology, before reading this book, relied heavily on the principles of that more standard historical definition of phenomenon. Simmons and Benson spell out the principles that shape Husserl’s approach to phenomenology in the first chapter of the book. Specifically, they list (1) intentionality, (2) horizontality, (3) the epoche, (4) the phenomenological reduction, and (5) subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Using these tools of study, we get a phenomenology that “is the attempt to make sense—by way of description and analysis—of experiences as they are actually experienced” (15). Simmons and Benson explain further that Husserl’s goal was “to get beyond all assumptions, presuppositions, theoretical frameworks, and metaphysical commitments such that we move ‘back to the things themselves!’” (16). Husserl’s phenomenological methodology looks as though it might set very clear limits on what we should be able to consider as objects of study. Thus, in order to expand what objects are possible for study using the lens of phenomenology, and have a clear way of thinking about the limits for this expansion, the authors mark what ends up being a very important distinction between phenomenon and phenomenality (mentioned in the first thesis).

At first glance the introduction of phenomenality as a way to locate objects of study for the phenomenologist seems like a fairly stark departure from the traditional discipline. By phenomenality Simmons and Benson mean “the conditions of presentation, giveness, appearance, and intuition that would then get concretized in a particular phenomenon” (7). In other words, adding and distinguishing phenomenality from phenomenon allows for the study of those phenomena that would standardly be included in anyone’s understanding of the category (for example, a pencil or a cup). But phenomenality as a distinct category makes room for those more “exceptionally complicated” phenomena, such as “the phenomenal possibilities presented in the encounter with others, God, the invisible, the impossible, and such abstract notions as life, difference, and even giveness itself” (7). Simmons and Benson use the concept of phenomenality to connect the phenomenological method of Husserl and Heidegger, who are considered phenomenologists by almost anyone interested in the field, with the more recent and contentiously considered phenomenologists such as Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion, among others. The authors show the ways that phenomenality itself has played a central role in each thinker’s philosophical perspective.

Phenomenality has a role to play in both secular and religious forms of phenomenology, and the authors are interested in making the connection between the concept itself and what can be called the “theological turn” in phenomenology. Despite this desire, Simmons and Benson are also clearly keen to argue against those scholars who would try to reduce a “new phenomenology” to such a “turn.” Yet, as a reader who has less of a background in the specific historical context of the theological turn phenomenology has been said to take, I found it helpful to read in the text both what this turn did to the field and what we might think the implications of this turn for phenomenology are more broadly.

The limited work that I have done in philosophy of religion and/or theology has centered on the mystics. My interest in the mystics and those texts that spring from mystical experiences was first sparked when I was looking at the courses that I could take to fulfill a graduate requirement. I was disappointed at the lack of female representation in the course offerings, so I designed my own course that would focus on female medieval mystics with the help of Christina Gschwandtner and a fellow graduate student. I found the texts themselves beautiful to read, but as a philosopher I also immediately felt skeptical of any attempt at interrogation, or perhaps more generously, interpretation, of mystical texts using the philosophical lens. The intuition that there was something violent about viewing the mystics through the philosophical lens lead me to argue that mystical texts, and particularly those based on visions, should be understood as the recorded manifestation of a physical or embodied experience and not the sort of thing that can open up new phenomenological (or existential for that matter) possibilities for their readers. I claim that those texts which are more clearly self-reflective are more open to philosophical interpretation, but most should not be looked at through such a lens. To illustrate my point here, it is helpful to look at two books from St. Teresa: The Book of Her Life and The Interior Castle. I believe that The Book of Her Life, which is a text that reads as a kind of autobiography, is more open to philosophical interpretation than The Interior Castle. The material in The Book of Her Life is recorded as an explication mediated by the author herself after some time has passed, and does not have an explicitly revelatory goal. In contrast, the content of The Interior Castle is explicitly the experiencing mystic’s own vision from and of God. In The Interior Castle Teresa attempts to stay as true to what is an embodied and relational experience as possible, but acknowledges that this can never be as precise as she or we might wish. Thus, if a reader tries to make the kind of interpretive claims about the text that a philosopher is likely to make he or she also makes a claim about the veracity of the mystical experience itself, whether or not this is the intention. But Simmons and Benson’s decision to underscore phenomenality in the attempt to define a new phenomenology gives me pause on these previously drawn conclusions. Perhaps by studying the texts that are meant to be recordings of lived experiences as objects with phenomenality there is something philosophical to gain (though I will admit that I still feel unsure of what the philosophical gain will be).

The second thesis that the authors attempt to prove throughout the book is that “new phenomenology should be weighed and considered in light of a variety of contemporary philosophical problems” (7). In general, Simmons and Benson focus on those problems that are raised by philosophy of religion and postmodern theology. The concept of phenomenality allows for new answers to questions that philosophy of religion has historically responded to more dogmatically. Yet, in line with their work to show that phenomenality is not just helpful for studying religious or theological content, Simmons and Benson contend that phenomenology is a discipline which can open up and help us explore many kinds of questions that philosophers spend their lives unpacking.

As I was reading I thought about my own frustrations with classical phenomenology. Yes, there might be something appealing, ideally and institutionally, about being able to talk about a thing itself, removed from the existential baggage that imbues our world and daily interactions with meaning. Yet, I remain unconvinced that it is ever really possible to study an object or experience in this way. And, even if it is possible, I still have serious questions about why any one person would wish to engage in such a practice. If we as subjects are always taking in information through a particular existential lens, then it is unclear what the benefits are of knowing about something free from that lens. Indeed, attempting to study things as if in a vacuum (which is one uncharitable way I think we might describe what phenomenology asks us to do) is what I would consider to be a practice for the imagination. By this I mean that those tools from Husserl listed above, are best for engaging in a kind of thought experiment, and are not useful in our interactions with reality. Yet, by the end of the book, I was starting to be convinced that it might be possible, and even useful, to view the existential lens itself as something with phenomenality. In other words, I began to believe that we might be able to isolate aspects of our existential lens using the tools of phenomenology, and this would help us make sense of how any object strikes us. In a paper for the APA Eastern Division meeting (2018), titled “Thinning the Veil: Rawls, Mills, and Identity,” I argued that identity itself is something that can only be discussed as enmeshed in a life with a variety of identity feature strands, yet in reading The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction I began to see possibilities for tools to help us parse the features as distinct particulate.

In thinking through the problematic relationship between the phenomenal gaze and our thrown existential experiences, I find it helpful to turn to the last chapter of the book, in which Simmons and Benson explore how ethics and normativity can fit into and even arise from the phenomenological method. Heidegger is a prime example of a thinker who sees the phenomenality in intersubjective relations. This phenomenality can sometimes be extrapolated into a normative or ethical framework, but it does not have to be. In my own thinking and work, I have often used Heidegger’s distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity as a mental tool for dividing between what we might want to achieve, and the average experience of being-in-the-world. Yet, if one is reading Heidegger carefully enough it should be clear that authenticity does not “signal how Dasein ought to be” (204). Instead “authenticity/inauthenticity is a pairing that names the phenomenal distinctiveness of Dasein’s ontological status” (204). This is a clear example of how we might use phenomenology to look at two existential positions, which do not in themselves give us normativity or ethics. In order to find in Heidegger resources for normative judgment, Benson and Simmons direct us to Heidegger’s discussion of “taking care.” In his analysis of what we do when we “take care” Heidegger distinguishes between “leaping-in” and “leaping-ahead.” According to Simmons and Benson, “leaping-in for the other takes away the other’s freedom and decision by taking care of the issue and handing it over as finished and completed” (206). In contrast, leaping-ahead is when we help someone else see possibilities for action, allowing the helped subject to find a solution for him or herself. These are at first blush observations of a kind of phenomenality which exists in different intersubjective relations. But the distinction also gives rise to some kind of normative claims about the best way to relate to those who need our help.

There is one final point about how the existential relates to the phenomenal, which stands out as important in thinking about a new phenomenology. I contend that one reason to be critical of a phenomenology that studies, and therefore allows for, religious content is the existential baggage it potentially carries. Someone who is interested in examining such phenomena is likely coming from a precise existential position—that of one who believes. Indeed, to view certain phenomena or entities with phenomenality as being present, as possible objects of study, requires a specific perspective that is already influenced by belief. But, through the historical lens that the authors used, I began to get a sense that a new phenomenology could, and perhaps should, be more aware of the ways in which the approach itself and the data that springs from it is inevitably from a perspective, which is perhaps more honest than any attempt to have a view from nowhere.

The third thesis that the authors try to prove is that “new phenomenology can be productively put into conversation with other contemporary philosophical perspectives regardless of whether those perspectives are traditionally associated with ‘continental’ philosophy” (8). This third thesis may indeed be the most contentious of the set. Although it is only specifically argued for in the latter chapters, I see the authors’ goal throughout to be one of inclusivity. As mentioned at the beginning of this response, new phenomenology is meant to cut across the fabricated disciplines of philosophical inquiry. The phenomenological method can be applied to both religious and irreligious phenomena. The authors also discuss some very specific ways that phenomenology might be used as a bridge between continental philosophy of religion and analytic philosophy of religion. In order to illustrate how best to combine ideas from the two schools of religious thought Simmons and Benson use an analogy centered on “mashup” music, comparing a good blend of styles in music to that which could occur between the two styles of religious philosophy. They explain that in order to be successful, or aesthetically pleasing, a “mashup” must have two clear and distinct musical themes running through it. It will not be counted as successful if one musical theme overtakes the other. The same will be true of analytic and continental philosophies of religion. Like Simmons and Benson, I am not a fan of the divide between continental and analytic philosophy, believing that dividing the discipline in this way does more damage to philosophical, analytic, and creative possibilities than just about anything else. I feel hopeful that their analysis of the ways new phenomenology might be able to help bridge these two schools of religious philosophy could be applied to the more general analytic/continental debate. This final thesis, and the work done to prove it, is a perfect example of the generosity and inclusivity present in the text itself.


Works Cited

Simmons, J. Aaron, and Bruce Ellis Benson. 2013. The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury.

  • J. Aaron Simmons

    J. Aaron Simmons


    Reply to Vita Emery

    I first met Vita Emery after hearing her give a talk a couple years ago to the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. Her attempt to bring the mystics into engagement with contemporary continental philosophy, an ambitious project to be sure, was, nonetheless, presented with rigor and clarity. So, when I was asked who should be part of this symposium on The New Phenomenology, Emery was someone who immediately jumped to mind. I look forward to reading her work for years to come and learning a lot from her about the potential philosophical contributions of apophatic theology.

    Whenever an author writes something there are always some hopes that one has for what the reader might take away from the book. Such hopes might shift dramatically across various projects, but when it comes to The New Phenomenology, one of my main hopes was that the book would model the sort of discursive charity for which Bruce and I were calling from the discipline more broadly. To that end, I deeply appreciate Emery’s comments about the “generosity and inclusivity” of the text. I am not sure how well we accomplished this, especially in light of the objections raised by Dickman, but it remains a central hope for all of my writing.

    Far too often continental philosophy seems to think that opacity is somehow an intellectual virtue, which is odd given the moral commitment to hospitality advocated by so many continental thinkers. Emery’s contribution to this symposium is not only generous in its hermeneutic engagement with our book, but it is generative of some very interesting, and very promising, lines of thought at intersections that need further consideration within the contemporary debates. Let me quickly touch on three ideas that Emery mentions.

    The relationship between the phenomenological and the existential is something that I deeply appreciate Emery noting as being both a potential problem and also a potential resource. I have never been all that attracted to philosophers who encourage stripping away our actual historical commitments in order to get at some sort of pure object, phenomena, or idea. Whether Rawls’s notion of the original position behind the veil of ignorance, Locke’s state of nature, or Husserl’s reductions, I find myself, with Emery, asking who would want to do philosophy if philosophical abstraction removes us from the think contexts of social meaning in which our identities, our commitments, and our conceptions occur. Sort of like Marx’s challenge to the abstraction of German Idealism, I am attracted to philosophy that pulls us ever closer to where we find ourselves, rather than invites us to stand outside ourselves in order to think about who we are.

    Even given that general sense, I also recognize that unless we can obtain some sort of critical distance from our guiding assumptions, we are unlikely to live lives that are, as Linda Zagzebski would say, “epistemically conscientious.” In order to trust ourselves as persons committed to truth, we need to be able to weigh and consider our beliefs, our experiences, and our actions in ways that are not straightaway question begging or cases of subjectivist special pleading. To that end, Rawls offers helpful strategies for thinking about how justice requires a social sense, rather than merely subjective interest. Similarly, Husserl offers a methodological strategy for attending to experience in ways that allow us to consider ourselves in relation to broader shared conditions that press upon what it means to be the sort of beings that we are, rather than simply isolating ourselves as the individual beings that we are. In this way, I think Emery’s intuition is right that phenomenology can offer important resources for being even more existentially invested in our contexts. By attending to the way that meaning is made via phenomenal experience, and by wrestling with the conditions of phenomenality that themselves make possible such appearing in the first place, we are better suited then to think about the stakes of our social location, our individual commitments, and the hermeneutic frames in which understanding becomes possible.

    In this way, even mystical and/or apophatic texts such as those by St. Teresa become accessible as data for phenomenological philosophy. They do so because they are records of the way in which phenomenality might condition phenomena that outstrip ordinary conceptions of appearance and givenness. That such texts are deeply personal, subjective, and we might say “radically” embodied, is not an obstacle to phenomenology, but an opportunity for phenomenology to attend to the full range of human experience as always given to someone.

    The phenomenological approach to such texts is unlikely to dig directly into the subjectivist dimensions, but instead will attend to the ways in which such a mystical encounter is possible for beings for whom phenomena are given in particular ways. The “philosophical gain,” as Emery puts it, is that phenomenologists must approach such texts/experiences/encounters allowing the “principle of all principles” to remain in place. Rather than limiting things according to a particular conception of appearance, or according to a reductive naturalist ontology, say, phenomenology “brackets” such prior commitments in order to ask: What is the case such that Teresa’s experience tells us something about the nature of experience, embodiment, consciousness, and the conditions of revelation? These are philosophically important issues to be sure.

    To the skeptic who is worried I am allowing for falsity in the name of openness, I would simply note that it might be that there are good reasons to be suspicious of some individual account as truth-tracking, yet what the reduction allows for is a commitment to letting the “what if” signify without prima facie restrictions. What if this is genuine experience? What if this is really a revelation of God? What if this is just an illusion? etc. In light of those what-ifs, we then ask what then is true about lived experience and the possibilities of it.

    Again, despite my hesitation toward stripping away contexts of meaning, I find phenomenology to provide important contexts of meaning of its own such that we are opened to what conditions those very contexts. In this way, I don’t ever see phenomenology as prescribing a “view from nowhere,” but simply a view that takes seriously, and doesn’t prejudge, all the somewheres from which we view things, ourselves, and the possibilities attending to both.

    In this way, I appreciate and endorse Emery’s suggestion that the goal of the book is “inclusivity.” Dickman helpfully has noted places where such inclusion can and should continue to go, but unless such inclusion is a philosophical possibility inscribed in the method by which philosophy is itself conducted, then the push for inclusion can potentially reduce to a political agenda, rather than stand as a manifestation of how truth-seeking should philosophically be understood from the outset (thus motivating a variety of political commitments). New phenomenology, for all its limitations, provides at least one way of making sense of such philosophical inclusiveness as extending to somewheres and someones in ways that restrictive and narrowed conceptions of phenomenology (and philosophy) do not.

    • Avatar

      Vita Emery


      Love of Knowledge

      Simmons’ response just makes me more certain that he is doing something wonderful with phenomenology. His warm reception to my own thinking on his work only underscores what a generous thinker he is. I have little to disagree with and only wish here to underscore something Simmons wrote. Simmons references my discussion of the way that phenomenology may help us think about the mystics differently. Recent personal experience has raised a general concern for me about reason and the force that some philosophers believe it should always wield in any kind of dialogue. Indeed, philosophy and its practitioners have always been highly, and I would posit overly, reliant on reason (though I know this claim will raise some eyebrows-for what could philosophy be without reason?) And yet if philosophy is really, at the end of day, about a love of knowledge, then what limits us to the realm of reason? There are many kinds of knowledge, and many ways to get at these different kinds. If we are going to take Saint Teresa’s experience seriously, then we are also going to want to claim that revelation can give rise to knowledge. And yet this is clearly a knowledge not gotten at in the standard “rational” way. I therefore deeply appreciate Simmons way of describing what a broader understanding of phenomenology might be able to do for our engagement with these kinds of individual experiences. He states, “Rather than limiting things according to a particular conception of appearance, or according to a reductive naturalist ontology, say, phenomenology “brackets” such prior commitments in order to ask: What is the case such that Teresa’s experience tells us something about the nature of experience, embodiment, consciousness, and the conditions of revelation?” I think this is an approach we could all do well to take with us into our daily interactions and conversations.

    • J. Aaron Simmons

      J. Aaron Simmons


      Rejoinder to Vita Emery

      Vita, you are too kind. I deeply appreciate the way in which you are resisting any reductive approach to thinking well. One of things that I find most compelling in the mystics is the way in which they challenge us all to “pump the rationalist brakes” on our own conceptions of the world, God, and ourselves. Maybe we don’t have it all figured out. Maybe we do, but know that we do. True confidence is likely found only within a truly humble life. The mystics model humility as more than simply an epistemic commitment – they encourage it as an ethical approach to truth seeking.

      I also think it is important to stress the distinction between mystical approaches and apophaticism – though they are too often taken to be synonymous. For my part, unqualified apophaticism often either flirts too closely with skepticism or with incoherence. Alternatively, mysticism invites deeper commitment even while admitting that relational personal dynamics are always likely to resist reflective clarity. That said, apophaticism helpfully reminds us that we can all too quickly give in to what I elsewhere term “kataphatic excess” as we take our own view of the world simply to be “the world.” Alternatively, mysticism reminds us that apophaticism is still a commitment lived into by persons (always finite, flawed, and fallible).

      Sometimes apophatic silence is the best response when confronted by more than we can understand. But, sometimes mystical intimacy is the only way that we can begin to understand what is “more.”

      When receiving such a mystical assist, as it were, phenomenology, I believe, is a helpful method for opening us up to a variety of plausible ways of relating to the world in all its apparent and unapparent complexity.



From Mashup Philosophy to the Braided Essay

Decentering Philosophy of Religion

Aaron Simmons’s work has pushed the boundaries of philosophy and religion, while finding ways to bring them into unexpected conversation, in unanticipated ways. Having the opportunity to engage his work is especially meaningful to me because it was at the 2015 SECSOR meeting in Nasvhille where I first met Aaron in person. After our panel, we went to a café with a few others and spoke for three or four hours about the state of philosophy of religion, its relationship to theology, and to the academic study of religion. During the first leg of what has become an ongoing, and seemingly unending, conversation about philosophy of religion, Aaron told me that despite our disagreements on the nature and parameters of the discipline, I had helped add a fourth term to what I’ll call in this paper his “mashup model.” In ways manifest in his introduction to the special journal issue on mashup philosophy (Simmons 2015) and in the article “On Shared Hopes” in response to Nick Trakakis (Simmons 2014), he had already zeroed in on three constitutive components for his approach to philosophy of religion: continental philosophy, analytic philosophy, and theology. During that first conversation in Nashville he mentioned that there would be a time when it would become necessary to think how religious studies fits into that framework. While The New Phenomenology is an important and challenging work, I want to take this opportunity to make Aaron make good on his promise by reflecting on how religious studies might come to play in the mashup model. After all, the phenomenological approach he traces and advocates for in The New Phenomenology is an important building block for mashup philosophy.

In addition to the four components (analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, theology, religious studies) named above, I want to bring in a fifth conversation partner, or collaborator: literature. More specifically, I want to use the nonfiction genre of the braided essay to think about the limits and scope of Simmons’s methodology.

Let me begin by sketching what I take to be the elements and goals of the mashup model.

Elements of Simmons’s Mashup Model

  1. The refusal to recognize the rigidity of genres. (Simmons 2014, 691)
  2. A reconstructive separatism. (Simmons 2014, 692). Simmons argues for the separation of philosophy and theology based on authority structure, rather than content. That is, the philosopher may appeal to religious phenomena such as scripture, but the appeal will stem from a different authority structure than it would in a church community. More importantly, the goal of the philosopher, it seems, is not to defend, legitimate, or develop a religious community through theology, but to draw on certain religious phenomena to develop a philosophical position on themes such as revelation, transcendence, and evil. This position recognizes that no intellectual departure point is objective: “This is not to assume that there is a neutral starting point for philosophical reflection, but simply to recognize that there are many different non-neutral starting points—all of which bring with them both some baggage and also some important possibilities” (Simmons 2014, 700).

Goals of Simmons’s Mashup Model (see Simmons 2015, 204–7):

  1. To make something new (while remaining old).
  2. To develop a gateway to alterity by combining the logical with the poetic, which means drawing on different genres.
  3. To avoid the reinforcement of hegemonic styles, methods, and histories through philosophical diversity.
  4. To work within the discursive standards of a community in order to open the community to new discursive possibilities.

I am a philosopher of religion whose primary location is in religious studies. As such, I was hired to teach religion. My office is next to religion scholars. My degree says “religious studies.” In order to understand how my work fits into that context, I’ve thought quite a bit about what philosophy of religion contributes to the academic study of religion. In terms of Simmons’s mashup model, my primary interest is in how the types of encounter Simmons stages between the analytic and continental traditions might look between philosophy and religious studies.

In my recent book, The Sacrality of the Secular (2018), I employ what Tyler Roberts calls a model of “encounter,” wherein the scholar of religion remakes and recreates his or her account of the human, world, or cosmos, through the religious phenomena he or she studies. In his 2013 monograph, Encountering Religion, Roberts outlines a humanistic approach to the study of religion wherein “the researcher exposes his or her world, and therefore his or her questions, expectations, ideals, and analytical maps and models, to the world of the religious subject, with the idea that this encounter might transform the perspective of the researcher” (Roberts 2013, 107). For Roberts, the humanities are more than the study of human beings for the sake of knowledge; they constitute a set of scholarly practices aimed at knowledge of life:

This constructive activity is also studied by social scientists, but in the humanities one studies it in terms of what Geoffrey Harpham describes as the “distinctively human capacity to imagine, to interpret, and to represent human experience,” that is, in terms of reflective human grappling, intentionally, with what matters. (Roberts 2013, 89–90)

Following Roberts, I want to suggest that one side of the relationship between continental philosophy and religion, wherein secular thinkers engaging religious texts, figures, and events, can be read as a response to unsatisfying and inaccurate visions of secularity by way of engagement with religious phenomena. In this sense, philosophy’s “turn” to religion is not a return to religion. Secular thought does not capitulate to religion in order to have the meaning of life restored. Rather, in the cases of thinkers such as Roberts religious phenomena reshape, enlarge, or deconstruct secular understandings of, as Bataille would say, “all which is.” As a result of these encounters, philosophers can develop both compelling interpretations of religious phenomena and generous and vibrant accounts of the secular. The goal is neither to arrive at the substance of religion (a trap many religion scholars have fallen into), nor to protect religion by positing an irreducible realm of the sacred (as in the phenomenological tradition cultivated by Mircea Eliade et al.). Rather, the goal is to philosophize with religion as a means for inheriting, creating, and mediating visions of the human, world, and cosmos.

Since completing The Sacrality of the Secular, I’ve come to see Roberts’s model of encounter as a methodological cousin to Simmons’s mashup model. I see both as bearing resemblances to what is known in the literary world as the “braided essay.” In recent decades the genre of memoir has come to the fore in the literary world. In a culture hungry for authenticity and connection, memoir seems to provide a unique window into the lived experiences of other human beings. Sometimes memoir is compelling because it relays an extraordinary tale—the harrowing survival of a POW or the long journey of a refugee. Often, however, it zeroes in on the often missed significances and meanings of ordinary moments—that is, it attends to the dazzlingly quotidian bits that form human life.

Part of the memoir craze has been the development of the braided essay, in which an author braids together two or more themes and narratives. One might, for example, read about a coming-of-age story braided with reflection on the extinction of bees, or reflections on natality braided together with reflection on the history of wolves. The goal, as Sarah Minor says, is to provide a richer nonfiction account than is possible in linear storytelling or mere reporting:

But the real beauty of a successful braid is how the “threads” combine thematically to form a more complete and pliable piece of nonfiction. A literary braid also makes the quiet argument that all stories are perhaps bound this way, in handfuls that don’t abide by chronological time. For me, the braided form is also dropping hints that some stories can only be written this way. (Minor 2017)

In my mind, Simmons’s mashup model and Roberts’s model of encounter push this statement even further: they make the argument that all truth is bound up this way, in braided forms, various traditions, and seemingly disparate sources. Philosophy is not about weeding out those elements in order to arrive at the Truth, capital T. It aims, as any good mashup does, at accounting for the truth in the most creative, and if necessary, unexpected of ways.

To take this a step further, Nicole Walker (2016) envisions the braided essay as “a chalkboard onto which we scrape our ontological questions,” so as to shape and reshape our conceptions of self and world. She makes the braided essay almost sound like phenomenology, which makes me wonder about how we might arrive at the truth that mashup philosophy of religion promises.

With this thought in mind, it seems to me that the goals of Simmons’s mashup model and my own approach are similar. Like Simmons, my goal is to avoid the rigidity of genres, recognize the distinction of philosophy and religion while creating avenues for mutually fecund encounters, to open new discursive possibilities in philosophy and religion, and to combine the logical and the poetic. Moreover, it seems that the example of the braided essay suggests that the mashup model may be a door to even wider forms of encounter than perhaps Simmons first envisioned.

This leaves me with two related questions.

  1. What are the rules for religious phenomena in the mashup model? Reconstructive separatism provides a carefully constructed framework for philosophers to reference scripture, revelation, etc. What if the philosopher wants to reference Hindu myth, Buddhist cosmology, or witchcraft? What are the criteria for philosophy’s collaborations with religion?
  2. Is it possible to create a mashup with genres other than philosophy and religion? The examples of mashups Simmons provides are constructed from what can be broadly called rock music and the hip-hop tradition writ large—two genres often looked down upon by classicists as noise rather than music. Will philosophy take the same stance if, for instance, one suggests that a mashup between philosophy and literature may result in new discursive possibilities, the avoidance of hegemony, and a pathway to alterity? After all, what is more emblematic of combining the poetic with the logical than combining the poetic, or literary, with the logical, or philosophical?


Works Cited

Minor, Sarah. 2017. “What Quilting and Embroidery Can Teach Us about Narrative Form.” LitHub, September 22.

Onishi, Bradley B. 2018. The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2014. “On Shared Hopes for (Mashup) Philosophy of Religion: A Reply to Trakakis.” Heythrop Journal 55.4 (2014) 691–710. Published with responses from Nick Trakakis and Merold Westphal.

———. 2015. “Introduction: The Dialogical Promise of Mashups.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, special issue on Mashup Philosophy of Religion, edited by J. Aaron Simmons, 14.2 (2015) 204–10.

Walker, Nicole. 2016. “The Braided Essay as Social Justice Action.” Creative Nonfiction 64.

  • J. Aaron Simmons

    J. Aaron Simmons


    Reply to Bradley B. Onishi

    Bradley Onishi is one of those interlocutors who almost always makes me rethink my own views. I have learned a great deal from him over the years and expect that I will continue to do so for years to come. In his contribution to this symposium, he expands out beyond The New Phenomenology and instead speaks to my approach to methodology and the meta-philosophical commitments that attend it. As he rightly suggests, my “mashup” model of philosophy is one that attempts to overcome facile divisions while allowing different approaches, commitments, and backgrounds to remain in place as important to the determinate practice of philosophizing.

    Most commonly, my aim is to bring analytic and continental philosophy of religion together as both being important resources for the academic study of religion. Considering my abiding concern with the boundary between philosophy and theology being a bit too slippery for many philosophers of religion, I have also tried to think about how mashups between philosophy of religion and theology might occur. Regardless of what discrete discourses, disciplines, or texts one is “mashing,” the important part is realizing that the original source material must be able to continue to signify as what it is, on its own terms and in relation to its own history. That is, mashup philosophy is never a mere mushy compromise, or a nebulous middle ground. Instead, like mashup music, it is only because the different genres, approaches, or styles are still recognizable, as such, that the newly produced mashup stands out as innovative.

    Along with Kevin Schilbrack, Tim Knepper, Merinda Simmons, Nathan Eric Dickman, Brett Land, and a few others, Onishi has helped me to see the importance of engaging religious studies (especially the critical theory of religion, but also sociology of religion, history of religion, and method and theory of religion) as a philosophical value. Over the past seven to eight years, I have actively attempted to enrich my mashup approach in my writing, teaching, and speaking in ways that incorporate these other important traditions of scholarship.

    To Onishi’s current suggestion that literature should become the “fifth” component of mashup philosophy, I simply say: sounds good to me. The idea of mashup philosophy is not to create specific spaces for philosophy of religion, say, but instead to overcome the idea that philosophy can be most effectively practiced by staying narrowly within a particular history of a specific debate. Instead, I see a best practice for philosophical inquiry to be a commitment to drawing on whatever resources speak to the question at hand—regardless of the home discipline, discourse, or history in which those resources occur. I admit that I see this as not at all a controversial view. Why would anyone want to investigate X and ignore Y, Z, and Q which all bear on achieving a better understanding X? Yet, I find that the hyper-specialized model of graduate education over the past few decades (maybe even centuries, depending on how one understands the social tendency toward a narrowing conception of expertise) has made this otherwise trivial view one that is rarely modeled in our actual research practices.

    Hence, Onishi and I are, broadly conceived, pushing for the same sort of best practices when it comes to philosophy and religious studies. In this way, when Onishi proposes that the “mashup model may be a door to even wider forms of encounter than perhaps Simmons first envisioned,” I think he is right about the wider forms, but wrong about my original vision. That I focused on analytic and continental philosophy of religion, and then expanded the categories to focus on philosophy and theology, was never meant to be a limitation on mashup philosophy, but instead simply a particular way of engaging in those mashup best practices relative to the specific questions that animate my own thinking. Others will have other questions, but asking those questions is, as I see it, most likely to account for the truth of the phenomena attending to them when we admit that the limits of our discipline are not the limits of our world. Again, I take it that we all tacitly know this, but also that not enough of us show the disciplinary and intellectual humility such that hermeneutic hospitality is a common characteristic in our work.

    Despite such broad agreement, I do worry when Onishi implies that the aim of mashup thinking is not “to arrive at the Truth, capital T” but rather “at accounting for the truth in the most creative, and if necessary, unexpected of ways.” I get his point here and at some level agree that inquiry is not just about knowledge, but also about transformed action. However, why wouldn’t we want to arrive at Truth (with a capital T?) insofar as possible? Being creative is a good value to hold, but I don’t see it as a replacement for truth-seeking, but instead as a value precisely because of what I take to be true about the world. Now, as Merold Westphal rightly notes, postmodernism helps us to understand that it is unlikely that we will ever know that our truth-claims are True (in this way, I struggle to figure out how something like a postmodern epistemic internalism would be possible). Instead, we must invest ourselves in the hermeneutic situation in which we daily strive to live into what we truthfully hold to be True. Unless guided by a commitment to truth, being creative can quickly just become another way of being deceived. Even worse, it can itself be deceptive such that it actively turns our attention away from truth (one can be politically creative regarding claims about “fake news,” say, and in the process normalize what Harry Frankfurt describes as “bullshit”). For example, at a conference, I once heard a well-respected scholar suggest that imagining new possibilities should replace truth seeking as the aim of philosophy of religion. I think that such claims are not only wrong (or incoherent: I imagine that the scholar took that claim to be true about a better way to conceive the discipline!), but also dangerous. So, if this is the direction in which Onishi is moving, then I will have to part ways with him at that point. Yet, I don’t think that is really what he is suggesting. Instead, like Stout, Dickman, and Emery, he seems instead to be offering an important reminder that we should always be open to the idea that what is true might be far stranger than we had expected. As such, seeking truth requires self-critically challenging our own assumptions, our own methods, and our own strategies.

    This self-criticism will likely require a lot of rethinking of how we do what we do as the professionals that we are, but it need not mean that we change everything. For example, I admit that I tend not to be a big fan of “poetic” approaches to philosophical inquiry and writing, but part of what seems true to me about the world is that unless we make room for poetics, we will only ever have a limited account of reality—but that doesn’t mean that philosophy should look like poetry, or that poetry should offer propositionally expressed theses. Again, the goal is to draw on what is relevant to the questions being asked, but while still recognizing and working within the standards by which one’s discursive community operates.

    Let me close by quickly addressing Onishi’s final questions. “What are the rules for religious phenomena in the mashup model?” My response is that we should remember that the principle of all principles is the notion that we allow evidence to be evidentially available wherever and however it presents itself. So, as phenomenologists, when it comes to religious phenomena, or as I would put it, phenomena that are plausibly considered “religious,” we should not operate according to an ontology or a metaphysics that excludes the possibility of such phenomena. Similarly, we should not operate according to an ontology or a metaphysics that requires the actuality of such phenomena. Whether one identifies as secular, as does Onishi, or as religious (specifically Pentecostal Christian), as I do, our metaphysical disagreements should not preclude being able to engage in similarly robust and mutually informing phenomenological inquiry. As Bruce and I say repeatedly in our book, new phenomenology can’t ever serve as a sufficient apologetics for religious belief—it is not about the actuality of religious phenomena, but about the conditions of possibility under which some phenomena could be “religious.” I see no reason why this would make it problematic on any front to engage with Hindu myth, Buddhist cosmology, or witchcraft. Indeed, as I said in my reply to Emery, mystical experience is phenomenologically interesting because it helps us to attend to the range of subjective experiences claimed by existing individuals and communities. The same applies to other religious, and secular, traditions. I think that sometimes because I focus on particular examples of possible religious phenomena that critics assume some sort of privileging or exclusivism operative in the background. That would be to attribute to me an unwarranted non sequitur.

    “Is it possible to create a mashup with genres other than philosophy and religion?” My reply: of course. As I suggested, the mashup model is something I defend as a philosophical best practice, and will continue to deploy it relative to the questions with which I am most concerned in my own research, but in no way does that mean that the model itself is limited to my own research questions. Again, to assume that it is limited in such ways is to attribute non sequiturs to my motivation rather than modeling the hermeneutic charity the mashup model is meant to cultivate. That said, are there limits? Sure, but I take it that those limits are inscribed into the histories of the practices and discourses that we are bringing together. As I said earlier, I am not a fan of philosophy that gets too poetic. My hesitancy on this front is due to the fact that I think it fails to remain philosophical in ways that are important for the functioning of the mashup. Yet, even if one wants to push things in that direction, as Onishi seems to be more open to doing than I am, it is still crucial to recognize that there should be a distinction between doing mashup philosophy, on the one hand, and mashup poetry, on the other hand. Where we end up locating ourselves (as philosophers or poets, say) will require attending to different discursive priorities, evidential authorities, and stylistic histories. Self-criticism continues, but only because there is a self there able to be criticized!

    Mashing up metal and hip hop does not ever expect hip hop to be metal, but instead opens spaces for rethinking how metal can best be metal, or how hip hop can best be hip hop. As I tried to explain in my response to Stout, philosophy and theology should be distinct in order that they can mutually beneficially engage each other most effectively. Similarly, in my response to Dickman, phenomenology needs to be distinguished from other philosophical approaches in order that it doesn’t end up erasing the differences by which our inquiry becomes most vibrant when it admits that it is never all that can be said.

    I want to end this symposium with a note of appreciation to Gary Elkins, Tracey Stout, Eric Dickman, Vita Emery, and Brad Onishi for their time and energy engaging Bruce and me. They have all given me more to think about and helped me in a “gap analysis” as it were of my own approach to topics of shared concern. Although I don’t agree with everything that they have said (and have tried to push back on some of the criticisms that I take to miss the mark), a discourse that allows for a theologian (Stout), a scholar of hermeneutics and global religion (Dickman), a philosopher concerned with mysticism (Emery), and a thinker working in a religious studies department who wants to move us all closer to literature (Onishi), is one that models the sort of mashup best practices that I attempt to encourage and a discourse in which I am honored to participate.