Echoing Tertullian’s famous question about Athens and Jerusalem, one respondent poses of Kevin Hart’s Kingdoms of God, “What has phenomenology to do with theology?” Many readers may just be wondering, “What is phenomenology?” Whether you are already immersed in the recent field of “phenomenological theology” or simply curious about what that is, Hart’s work is worth your consideration. As accessible as it is erudite, it provides multiple entry points into a broader conversation about the relationship between phenomenology and theology through careful analyses of the meaning of the Kingdom of God and related Christian practices and teachings, such as contemplation, neighbor love, forgiveness, and the Trinity.
In this collection of thirteen essays, Hart reflects on various accounts of the kingdom from St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to G. W. F. Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Offering his own constructive description, he draws on the branch of continental philosophy that begins with Edmund Husserl and gives special attention to its development in Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Martin Heidegger, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jean-Yves Lacoste among others. But what is particularly helpful about Hart’s approach here is the distinction he makes between this form of philosophy and the phenomenological dynamics commonly at work in the way we live, think, labor, and practice faith. He says, “Husserl gives philosophical precision to ways of being in the world that have been practiced by earlier thinkers, artists, and religious persons. Phenomenology is not restricted to philosophy, certainly not to modern philosophy” (3). So “we must distinguish between phenomenology as a way of seeing and as a particular philosophical position clarified and ramified by Husserl and his successors” (143). It is this more basic “way of seeing,” already embedded in certain modes of knowing and relating, that Hart is interested in for the purpose of understanding Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom.
So when he calls Jesus “a phenomenologist” (144), it is not because he is mistaking him for a twentieth-century philosopher but because certain processes later articulated in the technical language of modern philosophy are already evident in the stories of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. In short, the twofold technique of bracketing (or εποχή) and reduction enable what Husserl refers to as a “method of parenthesizing” or “neutralizing” our ordinary perception of or interaction with things (through the “natural attitude”) and a “leading back” of the subject to some primordial or pre-judging state (the “phenomenological attitude”). After Husserl, continental philosophers put forth different versions of reduction based on what is seen as most essential (about consciousness, Being, Life, etc.). Hart explains these on the way to his own theological rendering which he calls a “basilaic reduction”—the passage from “world” to βασιλεία or “Kingdom” (2). Phenomenology helps us describe something that is happening all the time in the practice of Christian faith: a bracketing of worldly logic and a recalibration of perception or judgment according to divine logic. But what distinguishes Hart’s understanding (along with that of Marion and others doing phenomenological theology), is the claim that “we are reduced, not God” (152). In other words, there is an inversion of the usual direction of reduction. According to Hart, this is particularly evident in and facilitated by the parables of Jesus, namely the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), which he provides a phenomenological reading of in his essay “The Manifestation of the Father.”
But Hart presses the question of phenomenality, or “the how” of appearing, beyond that of theological language to the very heart of Christian doctrine. In “A Little Dialogue,” he takes on the assertion that “there can be no phenomenology of the Trinity” since God does not “appear” as a phenomenon in the world (159-164). The responses to Kingdoms gathered in this symposium focus on this specific issue, addressed at length in Hart’s central chapters where he proposes a “Phenomenology of the Christ” (Ch. 7) and a “Supreme Phenomenology” of the Trinity (Ch. 8). Christina Gschwandtner writes, “I’m not worried here about the legitimacy of employing phenomenological tools in theology, but wondering instead about the extent to which they still are phenomenological and what theological work their transformed phenomenological character is accomplishing.” Keith Lemna, like Gschwandtner, draws attention to a larger problem concerning the difference between phenomenological manifestation and divine revelation. Justin Pritchett, on the other hand, is interested in extending Hart’s insights to other biblical narratives that might also be read as “embodied bracketing practices.” In his replies to each essay, Hart helpfully condenses and clarifies a number of the main claims interweaving Kingdoms.