When Vladimir Lossky emerged on the scene of Western theology, he took an ostensibly aesthetic category—the image—and elucidated its philosophical and theological significance. Lexi Eikelboom performs a similar service with rhythm. In her book, Rhythm: A Theological Category, Eikelboom describes how attention to rhythm can help reframe conversations about transcendence and immanence, temporality and eternity, form and deformation. Throughout her work, she widens the imagination for what theological aesthetics entails and shows how the concerns of that field (sometimes also called theology and the arts) are central to the concerns of systematic theology and philosophical theology. The range of thinkers she engages emphasizes that centrality and advertises the breadth of rhythm’s potential scope. They include, to name a few, Catherine Keller, Fred Moten, Augustine, Gilles Deleuze, Maurice Merleau-Monty, Jeremy Begbie, Julia Kristeva, and, most significantly for her project, Erich Pryzwara.
The diverse chorus of thinkers indicates the ambition of Eikelboom’s claim for rhythm. Rhythm is for her ubiquitous, found in ancient and modern thinkers, part of conversations set in theoretical, theological, and phenomenological keys. And yet the trajectory of her claim for rhythm is not ambitious in the way Lossky’s claim for the image was. Eikelboom wants not to claim that rhythm is the heart of theology but to show that rhythm is present in theology’s heart, even when we do not acknowledge it, and that recognizing and engaging it can take us into richer theological conversation.
Eikelboom’s first aim, then, is rendering rhythm perceptible in its pervasiveness to readers, a task that entails opening it up beyond a narrow conception of meter to show how rhythm can be approached from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. The synchronic, for Eikelboom, describes rhythm architecturally, as offering an outsider’s take that conceives rhythm as a form or pattern. The diachronic describes rhythm phenomenologically, offering a temporally-inflected account of someone inside the rhythm as it unfolds. While she sees rhythm as often represented synchronically, Eikelboom wants to inject more diachronic approaches into our imaginings, such that we understand the rhythm of a musical piece, for example, not simply as a contained in that piece but as occurrent as and interruptive of the rhythm of our daily lives. For Eikelboom, negotiating the synchronic and diachronic descriptions of rhythm successfully enables robust descriptions of transcendence and immanence, as consummately displayed for her in the analogical theology of Erich Pryzwara.
As she moves through continental philosophy, philosophical theology, and systematic theology, Eikelboom concludes the body of the text with two chapters of constructive theological work on creation and salvation. In an account at once deeply scriptural and rigorously philosophical, Eikelboom shows how rhythm can help us describes God’s work in the world as both harmony and interruption, the ordinary and the apocalyptic. The concept of rhythm, Eikelboom demonstrates, helps theology slip the knot of a number of seemingly intractable theological debates.
The range of rhythm’s possibilities for theology are evident in the responses that follow. Anne Carpenter asks about sin, grace, and interruption. Colby Dickinson probes the analogia entis that is, for Eikelboom, so exquisitely rhythmic, to press questions about status of the church in the world and the viability of revealed religions’ unique truth claims. Barry Harvey describes her elevation of rhythm as de-privileging narrative as he frames a critique about the implications of this move for theological ethics. George Pattison employs the synchronic and diachronic distinction to engage with Martin Buber on the naming of God and illumine the possibility of mystical experience—and also justify his “bad” reading habit of flipping to the end of a book! In these lively engagements, the essayists expand Eikelboom’s wide-ranging conversation by introducing still more voices into the chorus, thus illustrating Eikelboom’s central contention that rhythm is a significant and generative theological category.
The Implications of Rhythm
Lexi Eikelboom has given us a rich and rewarding study of rhythm as a way of “approaching life” that permeates all aspects of human existence, and yet has been terribly difficult to define or consciously manipulate throughout history. Though there has been a particular attentiveness dedicated to rhythm during major cultural and political shifts—as the improvisation needed during such times calls for rhythm to be studied and adopted—rhythm nonetheless seeks to harmonize the tension-filled impasses in-built within human existence, allowing it frequently to find a home within those religious traditions that attempt to deal with them. This book therefore not only wants to take up rhythm as a conceptual study, but also to locate its relevance and function within a theological context, because it is only within such a framework that we might be able to grasp the way in which rhythm truly functions in our world.
What I find to be of particular interest is the way in which Eikelboom creatively makes use of a standard theological concept in order to illuminate a provocative and insurmountable dialectic. To be precise, she presents us with a reading of Erich Przywara’s commentaries on the principle of the analogia entis as it lies specifically in relation to rhythm, something that allows her to portray Przywara as more open to the diachronic aspects of rhythm than other theologians, like John Milbank. In such a fashion, she cleverly uses the work of the philosopher Giorgio Agamben to illustrate the negative dimensions possible within Przywara’s description of the analogy of being and not just the positive, constructive ones. By her account, the analogy of being is not just that which posits a likeness between God and humanity; it also undoes both our images of the divine and humanity alike. In her words, “The analogia entis is a form that points beyond itself and surpasses itself” (166), leaving us with a profound theological method that many have utilized for centuries.
What she concludes is that Przywara’s perspective on the analogy of being is a creative way to include the necessary tension between those synchronic and diachronic elements that comprise all manner of rhythms, though even the analogia entis is not a principle that requires one’s complete allegiance, as if holding to such a metaphysical presumption were the end all of theological conversation and doctrinal formation (168). This is where Eikelboom’s unique voice begins to enter the conversation most directly, as she describes how the analogia entis is one particular way of developing a rhythm, but it is not the only theological possibility for doing so. By suggesting as much, we are witness to theological possibilities that had previously remained latent within every dominant doctrinal-historical narrative. And to be clear, her aim is not merely to champion the marginalized, oppressed or “heretical” narratives crushed by the “master” narratives of Western religion and their accompanying metaphysical claims. What she is actually pining for is the recognition that there is a theological tension that exists between synchronic and diachronic rhythms that must be allowed to function organically, to breath as it were in rhythm with each other.
The revaluation of religious doctrine that results from such an effort, she argues, is massive, though often overlooked. This conclusion is what she gleans from Przywara’s work on the whole: “Rather than attempt to articulate doctrines as discreet, circumscribable objects, he approaches doctrine rhythmically, articulating it as a process of rhythmically moving between perspectives because one can never see the whole from a single position” (169–70). To see the need to develop doctrines based on our lived reality rather than an imposed conceptual-doctrinal position is actually, she claims, more faithful to the incarnational nature of theology itself, and her assertions carry significant weight in light of the careful analysis she provides throughout each chapter.
If the main stakes of her argument can be captured succinctly in a single statement, it might be this one: “There is, from within the creaturely perspective, no universal rhythm, but a collection of overlapping and interacting local rhythms that only ever unite provisionally, such that it is disingenuous to human embedded-ness in rhythm to identify a single universal rhythm as the structure of reality in general, with no possibility of interruption from beyond that rhythm” (88). The analogia entis is merely a moment of achieved rhythm, but not that which captures the symphonic rhythms that encompass the whole of human existence. There are, again, other ways we might also mediate or utilize a variety of rhythms. To move between synchronic and diachronic patterns in whatever way seems to work best for a given community, tradition or life-form is the goal. This is the dialectic that Eikelboom conceives and it is one which also acknowledges both the analogical uses that have often accompanied theological doctrines and the metaphorical destabilizing processes that haunt them, as, I would add, Paul Ricoeur once described this same tension in his The Rule of Metaphor. In this endeavor she shares a good deal in common with David Tracy’s portrait of the “analogical imagination” as that which always engages a negative dialectical energy inasmuch as it is also what establishes the foundations of a community’s identity. Because Eikelboom is particularly attentive to the structure of these rhythmic tensions, she astutely avoids ascribing her own position to any particular theological school of thought, preferring rather to locate the truth of things in the dialectical play between various, competing traditions. She wants only to show how rhythm is both a “disrupter and connector,” that which, she claims in the epilogue, “may be capable of disrupting the divisions according to which theological conversation has been structured while connecting diverse projects and voices to one another in new ways.”
I was struck time and again by the Hegelian resonance in her project, of trying—and perhaps even succeeding—at grasping the dynamics between competing visions and not choosing one side over another, but of finding the rhythm that best captures the reality of life itself, and which cannot be overcome by some “third thing” or grand synthesis. This is what I hear her saying loudly when I note her suggestion that the movement itself is what matters: “Do the rhythms in which we are embedded encourage us to encounter and embrace the limitations of deformation, not for their own sake but as the site of the exchange, change, confrontation, and overcoming of the rhythms in which we are tempted to cocoon ourselves, precisely so that we are free to receive new rhythms that we may have overlooked, but which will contribute to our own proper movement?” (211). Salvation, in a religious idiom, might thereby involve a “responsiveness to interruption” that would allow us to alter our theological language while also being open to the traditions that arranged things for us in the first place. This is what some theologians, such as Johann-Baptist Metz and Lieven Boeve, have taken to be the “interruptive” nature of religious beliefs themselves, an impulse that ultimately always resists domestication at certain levels.
When she steers her ship directly toward a critique of theological efforts and religious structures, it becomes clear that there is a major challenge she envisions rhythm producing for the Church in that she finds no unique rhythm introduced by the Church historically; rather, the Church is a site of already-existing and contending rhythms. The Church has learned to mediate rhythms with metaphysical propositions such as the analogia entis, though this is not the only concept it could invoke to do so. As she will describe the vista of possibility before the Church at present, “Rather than attempting to capture an original rhythmic, ecclesial form, I recommend that we understand ecclesial rhythms as cultural, humanly-creaturely, responses to caesuric encounters with Christ, as particular ways of attempting to rest in the ordinary, which open the rhythms of culture to something beyond themselves” (215). From this vantage point, there must be an openness to other perspectives, and no declarations that a particular rhythm is “absolutely irreconcilable” with any another one (221). The space we may then yet begin to enter comes to resemble something more like a truly interreligious space, with varied and competing possibilities for managing the rhythms that resonate throughout our existence, even if this space rests entirely within a single religious tradition. The diversity at the heart of every identity, the difference within every sameness—these are the focal points of the rhythm she places her gaze directly upon.
It is at this point that I would address Eikelboom directly and speculate aloud with her, alongside her project, as to what the real implications of her project are. When an effort is made to step back from the immediacy of an embodied position so that a more universal perspective can be obtained through comprehending better the expressions and tensions of rhythm, to what degree, I wonder, is such a view already a capitulation to those abstracted, “buffered” points of view that characterize the modern, deconstructive project? Is any engagement with “the whole,” as once had been grasped in Hegelian dialectics, going to end with the eventual loss of any embodied position? Or do we actually get to perceive the undefinable creatures underneath every label, or doctrine, who are yet subject to the rhythmic tensions (perhaps even akin to Charles Taylor’s “cross-pressures”) that characterize us all in the modern era?
My references to Taylor and the “secular age” in which we live is intentional at this point, as one is left wondering at the end of Eikelboom’s narration, much as Taylor himself often wonders, if there can be any unique claims made on human existence by the Church, or any other religious community, once one realizes that it does not itself generate any unique rhythm, but only deals with the rhythms that are already existent in the world. Does the focus on the structure and rhythms of religious practice eventually lead one toward the recognition of a plurality of possible methods that does away with the absolute truth claims of a revealed religious tradition? This is, of course, the same problem that interreligious dialogue and comparative theology face, but it is one that we cannot not address any longer. It is much to Eikelboom’s credit that she is capable of bringing this discussion into new domains, ones that continue to reinforce the belief that we are treading on the right ground indeed by asking these questions.
In the course of her important study Rhythm, Lexi Eikelboom develops the figure of theological thinking as a kind of jazz improvisation, a movement that tends towards integration while remaining open to and being powered by the possibility of interruption. The following response can itself be read as a kind of improvisation on one of Eikelboom’s central themes, namely, the distinction between synchronic and diachronic theories of rhythm. In particular, I shall develop this theme with reference to the naming of God. First, however, a confession.
One of my bad reading habits is to flick forward towards the end of a chapter or section to see how far I still have to go. This happens when I’m reading academic works, novels, or just about anything else. I say it’s a bad habit because (surely?) good reading would mean letting oneself be led by the rhythm of the text, according to its own internal timing. It’s rather like conspicuously looking at your watch when someone is talking to you, a kind of disrespect to the speaker or, in the case of reading, the author. Sometimes, of course, this kind of manoeuvre is forced upon us by inescapable practical considerations—do I have time to get to the end before the next meeting, before it’s time to change trains, before I’m going to fall asleep, etc. But even when there is not that kind of external pressure, I am still likely to do it. Is there any justification for such discourtesy?
The distinction between synchronic and diachronic rhythm made me think that perhaps there is. Each text requires its own particular and maybe even unique kind of attention. I approach a koan in a very different frame of mind from how I approach The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not that the koan requires less attention, as if the only difference is between preparing myself for a half-minute read, as opposed to a three-week literary immersion. The point is that it’s simply a different kind of reading and, whichever kind it is, I, as reader, need to get my mind—we could say my whole sensibility—into an appropriate mood. But—of course—this kind of forward glance doesn’t at all tell me anything about how the diachronic progression of reading will develop: I have established a certain measure of attentive tension to the text that lies before me (temporally as well as spatially), but what is going to happen underway, I do not know. Maybe I’ll end up exasperatedly throwing the book at the wall halfway through, maybe I’ll sit in stunned silence on reaching the final page, or maybe I’ll be so desperate to continue that I forget the meeting, miss the train, or prop my eyelids open with match-stalks and leap on into the following chapter. Yet without being appropriately prepared, maybe I’d never have got to the point at which any of these outcomes was possible. So—a confession, but also a partial self-justification.
My main application of this distinction, however, concerns the name or naming of God. Although the scholarship underlying Martin Buber’s reflections on the origin of the name of God known as the Tetragrammaton is long outdated (though no more so than the scholarship on which Freud built his parricidal theories of the origins of monotheism), it retains a certain phenomenological interest. Buber distinguishes between what he calls the indirect and the direct name of God. Somewhat counterintuitively, it is the indirect name that is spoken in the ecstatic cry “Yah,” of which Buber writes that it has a common source with the Sufī cry “Ja-hu,” “O He.”1 It is a spontaneous cry elicited by the presence of the holy, a moment of experiential excess that Buber calls an Ur-Laut, a calling-out that is not yet a calling-to, since the one who has elicited it is not yet thematized in the personal terms appropriate to calling-to or being-called-by. As such, it expresses an immediate relation to God that doesn’t yet enter into the dynamic and complex movement of historical life, since this is by definition a world of named personal beings who freely enter into relationships of mutual responsibility and obligation. It is in this sense that it is the indirect name, since it is not a name that can ever be articulated as such within the flow of historical life. It is, in a sense (a good sense, we might say) meaningless, situated outside the world in which meaning is constituted through social communication.
But this “Yah” is only the first, immediate, primordial element of the name. In the divine-human encounter narrated in Exodus 3–4, God speaks his full name to Moses, the name traditionally translated as I AM THAT I AM, but (in what Ricoeur would call “an event of thinking”) retranslated by Buber and Rosenzweig as I-will-be-there or I-am-there. This is the name that Moses is to repeat to the Israelites when they ask who has sent him and, this time, it is a name that, being named, can enter into historical life where it becomes the name of Israel’s God through all the subsequent crises, catastrophes, and restorations of their future life together. If “Yah” speaks forth the Ur-Laut of ecstatic exuberance, outside history and time, “YHWH” speaks into history and time as revelation, as the name of one who addresses the people with specific and concrete demands, tasks, assurances, and promises. If the former is the cry of the mystic, the latter becomes the defining word of prophetic witness.
Buber’s analysis of the divine name is closely connected to his reading of what he regards as one of the earliest texts in the Bible, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), of which he writes that it is “a genuinely historical song . . . handed down to us as a spontaneous speaking-forth, singing-forth, by a human being who has lived through a monstrous historical event and now seeks to master the monstrosity through rhythm, grasping it, expressing it, and passing it on.”2 The divine name is central to the structure of this Song in such a way that we can see how the timeless ecstatic cry becomes a rhymed name that lays the basis for historical narration and historical responsibility. It is here that Buber finds the reason why the history of Israel is marked by a sequence of prophetic names in which revelation acquires concrete historical form—Moses, Deborah, David, Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, and the rest. Or, in Eikelboom’s terms, it is why the synchrony of the timeless cry is unfolded in the diachrony of the divine name that, in turn, structure the succeeding sequence of encounters in which the divine name is invoked and declared—“thus says the LORD.” It is this history that we call the history of Israel, a history that, for Christians, ends with John the Baptist to recommence with a new name, a new iteration of the ecstatic “Yah” in the name “Jesus,” meaning that Yah will not only “be there” but will save. (This last comment, I should add, is not said in the spirit of Christian supersessionism vis-à-vis Judaism. Jesus could not be who Jesus was, is, and will be if he was not of Israel, that is, if his name was not already named in the Ur-Laut of the ecstatic cry heard at the burning bush.)
In the light of these too sketchy remarks, I suggest that the ecstatic “Yah,” which (following Buber) I am identifying with the mystical moment at the heart of the God-relationship, provides the forward glance, the synchronic intuition that makes everything that follows possible.3 The name, YHWH, then launches the diachronic movement that makes this possibility humanly and historically meaningful. But it is not the case that, once spoken, the ecstatic moment disappears from history. It has left its trace within the name and if the name is not to become a mere convention, exchangeable perhaps with a number (as in a military unit or prison camp), the original ecstasy out of which it was spoken must be repeated and reexperienced.4
In this perspective, mystical experience or ecstasy not only remains a perpetual possibility of life within a community defined by the God-relationship but constitutes a continuing condition of that community’s existence. To go back to Eikelboom’s jazz analogy—and we have regrettably heard jazz events of this kind—without such repetition the sequence of improvisations just goes on and on, losing itself in formlessness, and collapses into terminal tedium: what Hegel called the bad infinity, perhaps! No matter how varied, how free, improvisation requires a faithfulness to the originating impulse—even if this does not and maybe even cannot be made thematic within the ongoing development of the work. Of course, judgment as to what works and what doesn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong is very different in this case from judgment in relation to scored music, where we can say that player x played the wrong note or player y played it too fast. Nevertheless, the fact that judgment is possible implies that, however obscure, however esoteric even, some point of reference will always be in play.
All of the above seems to identify the principle of synchronic unity with the initiating moment of a historical movement, even if (as I have suggested) this moment requires repeated reexperiencing and reenactment in the course of the forward diachronic movement. However, if this were all that it is, it would seem scarcely to qualify as a principle capable of extending to the whole of a given temporal sequence. And if that is how it was, it would inscribe history under the rubric of the primordial origin, inhibiting its forward movement and prescribing the trajectory of the logos in which we understand ourselves as historical beings. To provide the encompassing harmony of the whole it must also resonate within a given history as its end, the not-yet towards which the movement progresses. But, nota bene, this “end” too must be experienceable within history, within the diachronic unfolding, as ecstasy, as in time but not of time, a calling-out, but not a calling-to, except that in this case it is a calling out to one unnamed who one day will be named, whose name will “on that day” be restored to the immediacy of its first utterance.
We have come a long way from my “bad” habit of flicking forward to the chapter end. In itself that could be seen precisely as reducing reading (or, in a larger projection, history) to a quantifiable mechanical process. This would be virtually the opposite of the mystic’s ecstatic cry, yet, mechanical as it is (with, so to speak, one eye on the clock) this too, in its way, is a symptom of the need for the whole that makes it possible for everything that is to happen to happen. Reading—and history—are more than one damned thing after another. But what that “more” is cannot be said, except in the manner of what is even more singular than the name. Speech is not excluded, but it is in speech as the resonance with which the word resounds, a resonance which is no part of the word in the sense of a phonic or semantic element but which is present in the whole, in but not of language. It is the voice before the word. It is the breath to which the rhythm of articulated speech gives measure and therefore also the possibility of meaning.
Martin Buber, Moses (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1952), 60.↩
Martin Buber, Der Glaube der Propheten (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1984), 27.↩
I use “intuition” here in the vernacular and nontechnical sense since it is not a matter of a speculative seeing that is beyond or prior to language but of an inarticulate and non-thematic sense, akin to what early Romanticism spoke of as “presentiment.”↩
A military unit or prison camp do, of course (and alas), provide uncomfortably close analogies to how some people do experience life within the Church.↩
Anne Michelle Carpenter
The Harmonics of Rhythm
I want to begin by appreciating the immense effort of this book. That is a thought all too easily lost, and so it is the one that I want to begin with. Lexi Eikelboom has achieved something immense, which is the engagement of the elusive aesthetic category “rhythm” with theology. Whereas many, if not most, theological dialogues with the arts tend toward the literary, hers is musical-literary. This is not, cannot be, a small effort. The author has done something grand and ambitious and provocative—and this is to be remembered. Eikelboom is trying something new in Anglophone theology. I think she really does achieve this newness, and her achievement has pushed me to ask a few further questions. These questions are what will preoccupy me, but I did not want my praise to be lost in the weeds of my various curiosities. (I also ask forgiveness for some of the possible imprecision of my page numbers; my ebook version at times moved these around on me. I’ve tried to give approximations of more than one location of an idea, or have given particular quotations.)
“The question of salvation from the perspective of rhythm,” says Eikelboom, “is . . . the question of the relationship between ordinary rhythms and their interruption” (ch. 3, 202). This is the idea that I would like to spend my time exploring: rhythm, and its interruption. It is one that stretches across Eikelboom’s text, and one that particularly intrigues me.
What, exactly, is rhythm? It is two things, at least. It is at once “wholeness” (ch. 2) and “interruption” (ch. 3). But it is this latter category that does a great deal of work for Eikelboom, as in the previous paragraph. Interruption does things like protect that absolute transcendence of God, who as wholly Other intervenes in the world, an intervention that has the quality of both restoration and of unexpectedness—and therefore of interruption (ch. 3, ch. 5, 116–19, 124, 158, et passim). But interruption is also an encounter with the nothingness of sin (169, 202–3). Interruption, too, protects the experience of human beings who experience the world as interruptive (ch. 1, ch. 3, see esp. 90, 116, 124).
To say it one way: I am curious about how rhythm can be, ontically and metaphorically, both other and nothing. How can rhythm be the operation of both the God beyond-all-somethings and the no-thing of sin? Is this a way, at its worst, to secret a kind of nihilism into the supra-intelligibility of divinity, by linking them? This is going too far with the text, I think, but it is a question I might have for Przywara as much as Eikelboom, an idea I will return to. First, though, to say the matter in another way: how does our understanding of the world, and therefore also of rhythm—as Eikelboom is keen to show, and does so quite convincingly—affect the way we go about describing various Christian doctrines?
I suspect that something underneath my text here is the function of a quite different theological tradition than Eikelboom’s, even as we’re both readers of Przywara. Our distinctive backgrounds nevertheless have produced in us, I think, different perspicacities with texts and things that then inform our understandings, and thus create a difference—perhaps a conflict—that I want to explore.
My first thought while reading was of musical counterpoint. It occurs a great deal in various types of Western music, from the “rounds” of folk songs to the complexities of fugues. And the thing to understand about counterpoint is that it is fundamentally harmonic: it comments on, interprets, transforms the other notes. Never does counterpoint negate notes. That is not what the “counter” is; the counter is another face, another voice, another series. Counterpoint is an en-counter, if you will. “The various themes are already interrelated, attuned to each other,” explains Hans Urs von Balthasar in Truth Is Symphonic; “the fugue proceeds.”1
My second thought while reading was a Latin phraseology that Catholics are quite accustomed to laying out: gratia perfecit non destruit naturam. It expresses a particular assumption about the way grace works in the encounter between the supernatural and the natural. In other words, the Latin tries to describe how the solution to the problem of evil, as Bernard Lonergan explains, “will be a harmonious continuation of the actual order of this universe. For there are no divine afterthoughts.”2
These two thoughts, counterpoint and gratia perfecit, are related. An academic Catholic, broadly conceived, will not tend to think of grace or conversion as interruptive. They will tend to assume that grace, instead, “perfects,” “elevates,” “fulfills” nature—which is not indeed very interruptive. There is, we might say, a serious set of harmonics in the Catholic tendency to think this way, and it is a harmony in tension with other, shall we say, arrangements.3
So of course I noticed “interruption.” It struck my sensibilities as non-intuitive, and so I had to attend to the category with care. Therefore, it is worth it to recall again Eikelboom’s concerns. One of them is to protect the absolute transcendence of God, which Eikelboom often reads through the language of interruption. Another is Eikelboom’s desire to protect the immanent human experience of “interruption,” oscillation, and even, so to say, contradiction (see esp. ch. 1).
To expand my thoughts so far, I would like to spend a few moments engaging with Eikelboom (and Przywara) through Maurice Blondel. One of Blondel’s preoccupations is with how, exactly, we are to understand the natural and supernatural together. Together, he will say, they form one, integral, heterogeneous reality. “If there is logical discontinuity and metaphysical heterogeneity [between the natural and the supernatural],” he argues, “there is however vital solidarity and practical assistance (concours). . . . There is simply the factual relationship which allows the cooperation without confusion of the two immeasurable orders.”4 Blondel’s point is that in the world we encounter every day, we do not first experience the natural and then the supernatural; they do not split our phenomenal world in two. The natural and supernatural orders are not the same, not to be confused, and yet, our world is the integration of both. In Blondel’s context, this means that modern philosophy cannot evict the supernatural from its considerations. “It is a question of taking advantage of what in fact they [the orders] combine, of what in fact we are called to live, one and the other, of how in fact the refusal of the supernatural order does not remove its exigencies and its occasions.”5
Eikelboom critiques Maurice Blondel’s method of immanence, or his “immanent transcendence.” For Blondel, as we can see above, even the “immanent” method of a modern philosophy must acknowledge the transcendent that it cannot directly study but that explicates its immanence (ch. 3, 113–14). Eikelboom echoes Jean-Luc Marion’s critique of this argument when she says: “The limit proposed by Blondel ends up being simply the limit between consciousness and the world. . . . It is therefore inadequate to God’s transcendence” (ch. 3, 114). Eikelboom locates Blondel’s “limit” in an immanent cognitive experience of “interruption;” but, she argues, there is more to God than this interruption, a kind of greater interruption. Thus, Marion’s language of “impossible possibility” is preferable (ch. 3, 114).
I would like to suggest that this is not the correct read of Blondel. This is, first, because Blondel’s method leads from thought to deed, which is Blondel’s real interest, as in L’Action. What Blondel in his Letter describes is where a method of “pure” immanence (qua modern philosophy) fails, fails because it must include what is above it. This failure is at the level of human thought and deed, neither of which can explain themselves, and this is precisely not a limit, but a description of a single, integral reality (us and the world that we act in), a reality that is both natural and supernatural. “The very notion of immanence,” explains Blondel, “is realized in our consciousness only by the effective presence of the notion of the transcendent.”6 In other words, thought and deed cannot be without a notion of the transcendent—and it is not the world that ultimately transcends us, for we act in it.7
When Blondel speaks of “the supernatural,” he does not mean what is above consciousness. He means what transcends thought and deed, ourselves and the world that we act in. Yet this world at the same time must presuppose the supernatural to be made sense of, whether we are speaking of thought or deed. Thus Blondel’s consistent use of the word “integral” (intégrale) to describe our phenomenological universe.
Now, I think at first blush this excursus threatens to miss Eikelboom’s central thrust, which is that God is more than the limits of my consciousness or my anything, including my actions in the world. God transcends me and the world.
This is undoubtedly true. But in what way is it true? If the world does not exist, for example, does God still transcend? The answer would have to be No, because there is no-thing to transcend. Which means that, like the word Creator, transcendence is a contingent predication: it is not true of God in se, but it is true because of what is true of (contingent) creation: namely, that it is. What we are describing when we say that God is absolutely transcendent is, in Thomist parlance, a relation. A relation of creation to God. Blondel is out to describe something similar, but in a modern philosophical mode. That is to say, I think that there is a way in which Marion and Eikelboom expect too much from Blondel and from transcendence; they seem to want to describe it as absolutely attributable to God, which would safeguard God’s supernaturality in some way, when what transcendence and the supernatural describes is a relation not in God but in creation.
To string out this logic a little: when Przywara speaks about “intra-creaturely” analogy and “theological” analogy (cf. ch. 3, 116), he in both cases means things that are true of God because the contingent is. They’re true, and they describe creation’s relation to God in distinct ways. But in either case, God is not above or below creation; the creature is not “outside” of God. There is no “where” that God is. God just is. And this is transcends creation’s is-ing. To put it in a rather Catholic way: God does not interrupt, metaphysically speaking, because there’s nowhere to interrupt from. And so, in this rather old-fashioned sense, it is worth wondering whether Przywara’s “ever greater” from Lateran IV is in fact readable as “interruption.”
Here, admittedly, I strike at a vital cord in Eikelboom’s work. I strike not out of a kind of love for provocation, nor interest in division, but out of genuine curiosity: in light of my various Catholic, Blondelian, Thomist ruminations, how is Przywara to be understood?
Perhaps the closest Przywara comes to this over-against, this interruption, is in the case of sin. Przywara and Eikelboom make creative the gesture of “nothing” that is sin and the “nothing” of the beyond-being of God, drawing the two close. But to return to the beginning of my text: we must ask him, and Eikelboom with him, if the divine treatment of sin is a “nihilation” comparable to divine being-beyond-being (ch. 7, 202–3)? Or—provided I understand what either author is doing—does this nihilation go too far?
Or again: does interruption of itself, applied not to God but to the world, sometimes take us too far? Can we say for example that the history of the Church, of you and me in Christ, is an experience of “ever new nihilations” (ch. 7, 221)? What does this mean when we say it?
It might be most useful for me to turn to a practical matter as a way to indicate that my interests are more than painful abstractions. In chapter 2, Eikelboom surfaces black aesthetics like that of Fred Moten, who uses paradoxical language to describe a kind of “interruption” of the white world: the commodity (black flesh) speaks (ch. 2, 53). This use of interruption, the anthropological one, is profound, and some of Eikelboom’s most affecting and effective work.
I am hesitant all the same, under the lights of writers like Victor Anderson, to associate black aesthetics with interruption. Negation or nihilation, this category over-against, the interruption of other notes, is a tricky category here. Because one of the functions of whiteness is to deny black flesh of humanity, I am hesitant with this association, which does not have a kind of sequel where black art is its own, positive rhythm, where it is more than a counter-rhythm. But perhaps this is what Eikelboom is trying for: “Since these rhythms have grown out of the African-American experience of slavery, they both signal a loss of identity and assert a new identity” (ch. 2, 54). Even still: is this double-assertion not more than “the interruption of hegemony and the negotiation of identity” (55)?
All of which leaves me wondering intensely about this category, “interruption,” and the great amount of work it does for Eikelboom. As I hope I have made clear, it follows Eikelboom throughout her reflections. I have tried to follow those reflections even while questioning some of their directions. It seems that there are many interruptions, in fact, all analogously but not absolutely related to one another. In many ways, I want to know about the differences that reside in what is a several-use of a single word. In other ways, I am uncertain of some of those uses, and where they take us, whether with respect to divinity or theological anthropology.
My esteem for this effort does not waver for all my preoccupations and questions. It seems to me that Eikelboom has opened up a great chance for further dialogue and exploration. Here I try to further that chance as a tribute to what she has already achieved.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth Is Symphonic (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 11.↩
Bernard Lonergan, Insight (University of Toronto Press, 1992), 718.↩
It is not uncommon for Catholics and non-Catholics to run up against these Catholic presumptions and their alternatives. The Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification had to grapple with just this trouble, for example. The Lutheran metaphoric “blend” that describes sin and justification, as Jakob Rinderkneckt explains, “meshes well with a dialectical theology, for the historical, sinful existence of the Christian is held in an unresolved tension with her otherworldly, eschatological recovery” (227). Catholic theology, meanwhile, is considerably less dialectical in tone. Now, this is not the Joint Declaration or a Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical dialogue, exactly, but I think it highlights a genuine undercurrent or typology underneath my interests and the way they refract off Eikelboom’s work.↩
Maurice Blondel, Une alliance contre nature: Catholicisme et intégrisme (Brussels: Editions Lessius, 2000), 7–8.↩
Blondel, Une alliance contre nature.↩
Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 158.↩
Blondel, Letter, 162–65.↩
7.21.21 | Lexi Eikelboom
I am so grateful that Carpenter has given me the chance to think more about interruption. It’s something I think about a lot about lately. We’re currently living through an immense global rhythmic interruption. COVID-19 has put a stop to many of our daily rhythms. This takes a different form depending on where one is in the world. I write this from Melbourne, Australia, where we have been in a serious lockdown for months. This confinement has brought home (pun intended) the degree to which the rhythms of daily life result from the ways in which the flow of time is punctuated by our movements through space. When the space through which one moves constricts, time starts to feel less punctuated; it feels “mushier” (as a friend aptly described it to me). We cannot change our movement through space without also affecting our experience of time. Our usual experience of time has been interrupted.
But the ways we identify and name the interruptions related to the pandemic are complicated. On the one hand, COVID-19 represents a mass interruption to our daily rhythms, both at an individual level and at the level of global flows of goods, services, capital, etc. These repetitive loops are being radically redirected. Many have been altogether suspended. In this sense, COVID-19 is the most intense and total interruption that has occurred in my lifetime. However, in Melbourne, one of the things that has been interrupted is certain sorts of interruption: the interruption to the flow of work that happens because it is time to leave the office, or the interruption of traffic during a daily commute, or the interruption that results from someone stopping by. It is precisely this interruption to interruption that has led to our current curious experience of time as fluxy and mushy.
Here’s another example: one could make the case that much of our current economy is moving in the direction of valorizing interruption. The so-called gig economy expects workers, whether Uber drivers or corporate project managers, to be as nimble as possible so that they can interrupt a given trajectory quickly and switch directions in response to changing demands. This is an iteration of capitalism that creates anxiety, instability, and prevents people from committing to causes that would require long-term investment. It is a model of capitalism predicated upon the valorization of interruption. So, if interruption has been coopted by the very thing that needs to be interrupted, what strategies of intervention are we left with? How does one interrupt the interruption?
These examples are meant to emphasize and affirm the problem to which I think Carpenter is pointing. I do not want to valorize interruption as such. If I am so sanguine about it, it is in part because I worry that it has been demonized unfairly in much Christian metaphysics. But this is not to say that I think that every interruption ought to be counted as salutary or divine.
Carpenter poses the question metaphysically because I frame it metaphysically in the book: experiences of interruption can protect divine otherness but some also manifest nothingness. My point in putting things this way is not to assert that these two things are the same, metaphysically speaking. It is to say that their difference from one another, metaphysically, does not provide us with a map that enables us to distinguish “good” or “bad” interruptions at the outset. Divine or nihilistic interruptions can, at times, occur proximally to one another; they can feel similar; they may appear isomorphic from within time. Metaphysically, they may be distinct, but the distinction is not located in the form through which we encounter them. The question in which I am interested is: What does the ambiguity of the form tell us about the rhythms in which we find ourselves and how we should engage with them?
All this is to say that the problem Carpenter raises is one that I ponder a lot. I too want to know about the differences between interruptions. For me, though, this is a problem that cannot be addressed at the metaphysical level. While I am happy to take ideas about counterpoint and harmonic rhythms on board, they do not really solve the problem I am interested in. They simply push it back another step. Even if we distinguish a rupturing interruption from a contrapuntal interruption, it remains unclear which we encounter when we meet an interruption in the course of life, from within time. Carpenter’s distinction does not account for the experience of meeting a negation that turns out, in the course of time, to not really be a negation at all. Diachronically, as experienced, it remains an interruption. Coding it as a counterpoint is a designation that occurs only with hindsight.
I think Carpenter’s instincts about the deeper sources of our disagreement are right. From my perspective, though, the disagreement stems from a catch in the transition from the metaphysical to the existential. I worry that I am not really addressing Carpenter’s concerns, but I think this is because we are speaking in different registers. There is a way in which I agree with everything Carpenter says. I affirm what she says about transcendence and the supernatural as categories of relation. I am happy to revise my position on Blondel. But I still want to know: How does this help me with the problem I care about? I want to say to the academic Catholic: “You know that feeling that’s like you’re falling off a cliff? You know that experience when a way of being, a relationship, a structure, an institution, is destroyed? I want to know whether and how those experiences can be taken seriously within Catholic theology.” It is these questions about experience to which I find a response to in Przywara.
In the process, I have also come to think about metaphysics differently, that it is less about explicating certain logical relations and more a way to make sense of experience. I think interruption is an experience best evaluated contextually, rather than by predetermining distinctions like “counterpoint,” “rupture,” “interruption,” “harmony” that can be reliably applied to experience in advance, as if events could be sorted into these buckets. And precisely because interruption is contextual, I do not intend to essentialize black aesthetics as interruptive. It has been interruptive in important ways in relation to particular contexts, but this does not reduce it to that particular contextual function.
COVID-19 is an excellent example of how the problem can’t be bypassed by appealing to metaphysics. It’s not clear yet how interruptions generated by government responses to COVID-19 will function as salutary counterpoints to cycles of production and consumption that threaten the earth, how they will function as harmful counterpoints to rhythms of hegemonic power, how they will function as salutary disruptions of personal cycles of consumption or overwork, or how they will function as harmful disruptions of the other interruptions on which we rely to structure mental health and forward movement. In what ways will these interruptions make new forms of racial justice possible and in what ways will they exacerbate injustice? I suspect some of the interruptions will do several of these things at once. This is why I call them interruptions, with all the attendant ambiguity, rather than either ruptures, on the one hand, or counterpoints, on the other.
In other words, I don’t want to determine the differences between the different analogical interruptions synchronically. An interruption is interruptive. It’s new. You can’t classify it because you haven’t encountered it yet. Whether or not an interruption is destructive to rhythms or advances and complexifies them, is something that can only be argued for in relation to the rhythms in which it occurs, in part through the possible responses to it which emerge. This cannot be determined at the outset, and it is this diachronic dimension that I don’t want to lose sight of.
So yes: more! Please more! Interruption is not enough. But I also don’t want to leave it behind too quickly. I worry about the ways in which metaphysical discourse runs too quickly past the experience of being interrupted in order to classify the event. And if there was ever a moment for us to look interruption squarely in the face, this is it.