Symposium Introduction

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 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.

  1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth Is Symphonic (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 11.

  2. Bernard Lonergan, Insight (University of Toronto Press, 1992), 718.

  3. 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.

  4. Maurice Blondel, Une alliance contre nature: Catholicisme et intégrisme (Brussels: Editions Lessius, 2000), 7–8.

  5. Blondel, Une alliance contre nature.

  6. Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 158.

  7. Blondel, Letter, 162–65.

  • Lexi Eikelboom


    Interrupting Interruption

    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.

    • Anne Michelle Carpenter


      On Leaping and Falling (Off Cliffs)

      I had the chance to see Dr. Eikelboom’s reply to me ahead of time, so I spent a few days thinking about and writing a reply (below).

      I wrote my original response to Dr. Eikelboom’s magnanimous text with the idea that I would, or could, represent something of Erich Przywara’s Thomist and Catholic “whence.” I am myself something like this whence. A version of it, anyway. And I am happy, almost always, to serve the dramatic rôle of the unsmiling metaphysician. For there is a metaphysical seriousness in Eikelboom’s book, a seriousness held in tension with an existential seriousness, which she highlights in her response to me.

      Eikelboom’s tradition, but perhaps more-so her profound existential concerns (and this her reply helped me to see), “do” something to Przywara and to his metaphysics. These concerns change Przywara, as indeed they must. As must occur with every serious reading of anyone. In a sense, all I desired was to demonstrate that this interpretation occurs. That it is an interpretation. Thus Eikelboom’s faithfulness to Przywara is revealed to be an act of creativity. He would like that quite a lot, I think.

      And if I, with a Blondelian, Lonerganian, Thomist verve, call back to Przywara’s original milieu— If I arrive with my scalpel in my desire for distinctions— If I reply to praxis with theoria— Then these efforts of mine intend a further purpose, an alternating face, a counterpoise. And perhaps I can bring Eikelboom and myself together across our difference by acknowledging what that face is. Perhaps doing so will be something like a Catholic leap off a cliff. Because really, the “face” that I care most to understand is God’s own. Which is to say, underneath all my questions about “interruption” and the supernatural is a desire to know where God is in human experience.

      I take many aspects of Eikelboom’s fascination with metaphysics to be involved in the effort of protecting the divine nature in its transcendence, thereby making “room” for human experiences of countless, breathless differences—even contraries. A type of phenomenology interdicts here, which can express the motley shape of ever-transmuting phenomena. In this modality, one could ask me whether I’ve ever had my world collapse. One could tell me of one’s own experience of Weltkollapse. These would not need to be the same, on this account, to count.

      Even still, where is God? If what Eikelboom and Przywara say about God’s transcendence is true, it will not be the experience itself that can tell me. I am not sure that experience itself can tell me anything at all, in fact. It is we who do the telling. It is our own action that supposes, and grasps, experience as intelligible, as diffusive or shareable (which is to say, as good). Blondel calls this the “mediating action in all our action.” And in a certain conception of divine transcendence, God will have been in-and-beyond all of it at every moment and in every way, ever and always the same—ever and always present by created being’s participation in Being, like the sun shining on the wicked and the good.

      In a universe of this type of supernatural, there remains a kind of gap, as it were, between the many variations of human experience and the metaphysical God. Thus does Eikelboom defer to experience in her reply to me, and she does so out of a kind of necessity, through a methodical primacy that must center its object, experience, at the price of what it demotes, and what it demotes is abstraction. This demotion allows God nearer to human experience. And if I am by own account a happy, unsmiling metaphysician (please allow me to grin at myself), a creature of the abstract, this means, in Eikelboom’s cosmic ordering, that I always threaten to forget about human beings.

      It is not bad to suspect me and my kind of as much. Still, I press up against this gap in Eikelboom’s cosmos, a gap that I might call a version of the “supernatural.” I touch it with my fingers, and I wonder about it and its price. In my first reply, I said that God has no afterthoughts. This was my attempt to cleave together Eikelboom’s cosmos, to question its embedded price, to overcome its gap. I countered with a different supernatural. For I do not think of abstraction as a pale copy of reality. It is reality’s enrichment, and this enrichment is necessary. To ask about human experience is not to remove one’s self from it; it is to dare its furtherance; it is to leap off a cliff. It is to discover God. And to ask is also to fall, to abruptly discover one’s self without ground to stand on, to touch the pain of a sudden wound, to articulate that wound with a cry. I mean that to ask is to relinquish control. I can only intend an answer; I can only want; I cannot decide ahead of time what the answer will be. In fact I “have” nothing but my question. Far from executing a titanic hegemony, the question is a kind of kenosis. An ecstatic reaching that must let go through its intending. And this question, too, discovers God.

      Metaphysics, after all, is just questions about reality. And I think metaphysics is important, not because I like my orderly conceptual boxes, but because I think questions are one of those ways that human experience breaks out of itself, breaks free, breaks into the world of meaning. And I want this meaning to matter to God. If for Eikelboom that “mattering” emerges in the gaps of interruption, then for me it emerges in the interiority of the human being who asks, who asks often quite desperately, who asks along the lost borders of polite society, about what is good and how to resist evil. There is no cosmic gap necessary, here, for the person who asks, asks with God, and when they act, they act with God. So I face a choice, a million choices and also one, of how to act and with whom, of being with God in my brothers and sisters, or of being against God when I stand against them. A whole, frightening, wonderful world breaks free—and it will not come into being unless I submit myself ever-again to the new questions that it presents to me. So if Eikelboom protects human loose-ends with the category of interruption, I protect the same with the question. Thus are we different, but perhaps now nearer to one another.

      A final, stray thought. In the world of meaning, the No to the world that is Black rage is also, and always, the expression of a whole cosmos coming into being. In the world of meaning, this “No” cracks apart a kind of lie, a sinful disintegration, with its defiance. It breaks open with the interior joy (in its rage!) of a universe that is in love with God. In other words, this “No” is also the logos of a “Yes” spoken in cooperation with—that demands—the coming into being of the universe that God intends. I can say, even, that this rage is the rage of a divine passion. For there are no divine afterthoughts.


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.

  • Lexi Eikelboom


    Abstraction as a Moment of Embodiment

    One of the most exciting things about engaging in a conversation like this is when someone shows you what you were doing in a way that you couldn’t see while you were doing it. I am struck by how Dickinson describes Rhythm in ways with which I resonate deeply, but these things were not in the forefront of my mind when I was writing. Dickinson points to the Hegelian nature of my work, which is a good example of something that was not on my mind at the time, but which has become important to me more recently. So a statement from the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit seems appropriate: “We learn by experience that we meant something other than we meant to mean; and this correction of our meaning compels our knowing to go back and understand it in some other way.” Dickinson compels me to go back and understand Rhythm in another way that is more than I knew I was saying at the time.

    Let me begin with Dickinson’s final question about the truth claims of Christianity. I think that Rhythm is premised on a Christian truth claim, which Dickinson mentions. I think of that truth claim as something like this: “The Christian doctrine of creation means that God creates time; the Christian doctrine of the incarnation means that God subjects God’s self to time. This makes the temporality of human experience a meaningful source of theological reflection.” These are Christian-specific truth claims. Nevertheless, a truth claim like this opens Christian theology to temporal encounter, which is unpredictable. I think Christians should affirm truth claims like this. But that does not in and of itself determine (a) the particular way in which they are true or (b) what happens when these truth claims encounter certain events that, including encounters with the truth claims of other religions and, indeed, how (b) affects (a) over time. In Hegel’s words, experience might require our knowing to go back and understand it in some other way.

    So, when I say that the church does not generate a unique rhythm, I do not mean to say that the church does not make absolute truth claims (which may be unique). But claims are not rhythms. What I mean is that the church’s truth claims are not preserved from the rhythms of the world within a safety bubble of its own temporal patterns, which are sanitized of the world’s temporality. And my position is itself based on the sort of truth claim that I describe above. Another way to put this is to say that since a significant truth claim of Christianity is that the revealed may be attested to by truth claims, but is itself something more incarnate than a truth claim, Christianity’s own truth claims subordinate the status of truth claims themselves to incarnation. And I take the incarnation to mean that if we take truth claims to be absolute in the sense that they cannot be touched by the conditions of human life—time, relationship, change—we in fact close ourselves to revelation. So, Christianity does make claims on human existence, (although the way in which or degree to which they are unique feels to me exactly like the sort of question the answer to which may change over time). But when we assert those claims in time, and try to live in response to those claims, their meaning and significance changes.

    Dickinson wants to think with me about what the real implications of my project are. While I hope there are many other implications that I can’t yet see, I fervently hope that one of them is not the loss of an embodied position, as abstract and general as Rhythm is. My objective has always been that Rhythm be read as an abstract moment that might somehow work to push us deeper into an embodied position. I want it to function, not as a final picture of how reality works, but as a spur that pushes deeper into a certain kind of movement. The difficulty that I recognize is that, on the surface, the book appears as a fairly synchronic perspective that nevertheless calls for a diachronic perspective. But the reason for this comes from an embodied position: my own embodied position.

    The embodied manifestations of Christian traditions that some of us have inhabited assume a synchronic approach to doctrine. So, for me to argue for a more diachronic perspective from a synchronic register is a reflection of an audience within myself, to whom I am speaking. The synchronic register—an abstracted attempt to speak about the whole or about the undefinable creature—is itself a manifestation of a certain embodied position because it reflects the position of my audience, but in a way that attempts to drive us all beyond it. It is, in a way, “an abstracted, ‘buffered’ point of view,” but I hope it isn’t one that leaves us there. It hasn’t left me there.

    Rhythm was, first and foremost, an attempt to move myself from one (embodied) way of inhabiting the world to another. And, in the process, I hoped it could do the same for a few others who find themselves in a similar place. The model of theology from which I have been attempting to extricate myself is a synchronic one. It is the idea that theology gives us a blueprint for life that has been set in advance of the particulars of life. According to this model, we know exactly what we ought to think about God and how we ought to live, especially in the realms of family and sexuality, and in what it means to be part of the church. On this understanding, there are clear lines that exist between a system that has been abstracted from the Bible and the idea of God’s will, on the one hand, and certain courses of action and choices that can be preemptively categorized as either obedience or rebellion, on the other. For the really zealous, this may even involve a prohibition against certain emotions: worry, anger, loneliness, or any emotion that might be construed as selfish.

    What I observe in this model is a connection between the creation of formulae for what is permissible or not at the outset, on the one hand, and the attempt to control time and prevent surprise, on the other. If we have the musical score, there are few surprises. Our task is simply to play the notes in front of us as best we can. The conductor might introduce small variations, which must be obeyed, but harmony and unity are possible because the whole is given at the outset. Between the conductor and the score, time is strictly controlled from beyond us and surprise is minimized. Likewise, if we consider certain behaviors, emotions, or events to be preemptively rebellion and disobedience regardless of context, we must prevent ourselves from meeting these things along the road because they will threaten our status as synchronous with the group that holds this position. We put up borders to minimize these surprises.

    It’s not that I think boundaries and borders are unnecessary. But they involve freezing time, so introducing too many can create a static view of reality. The relationship between the improvised connections and the boundaries that create some safety and predictability have to be worked out in each case, maybe even repeatedly. But this sometimes requires revising our view of the past, changing the pattern, accepting things we thought we had to keep out.

    I sometimes catch myself trying to problem-solve my relationships in an attempt to institute a universal rhythm that will prevent events that I have preemptively categorized as bad, in order to secure harmony for all time. Set it and forget it. I do this despite the fact that, as Dickinson has quoted me as saying, I believe that there is “no universal rhythm, but a collection of overlapping and interacting local rhythms that only ever unite provisionally . . .” I still have this tendency to want a universal rhythm. The problem with my approach is that it also minimizes surprise, which is where genuine connection often happens. We are all improvising in time and sometimes our improvisations harmonize and sometimes they clash. The incarnational solution is not to prevent the clashes. It’s to turn them into opportunities for new harmonies as they appear, diachronically, in time.

    Dickinson is precisely right when he says that I want to develop doctrines based on our lived reality because it is a method faithful to the incarnation, rather than an imposed conceptual-doctrinal position. But the model of theology that I am reacting against—theology as imposed conceptual-doctrinal position—is also an embodied, lived reality. It has had real consequences for how people like me have made real-life decisions. I find that I must constantly resist the desire to cocoon myself. It is often difficult for me to receive new rhythms and I’m sure I wrote the book precisely against this tendency in myself.

    Since we are asking about the singular, the embodied, the particular, I suspect that different people change in different ways. In my case, I had to begin with the synchronic system that I inherited. It was, in a very real way, an embodied place in which I was standing. Rhythm was me writing myself a path from that atemporal view from above into a model of doctrine responsive to temporal, lived experience. Doing so has likewise had real implications for my embodied position. The “abstracted, ‘buffered’ point of view” did not end with the loss of my embodied position; it has enabled me to be truthful about it.

    In the end, this why I think the key is in the nature of the relationship between the synchronic and the diachronic. I do not object to an “abstracted, ‘buffered’ point of view” in its own right. The question is what that point of view enables in relation to the context in which it is articulated. Does the point of view hold us in place or does it incite a swing towards one’s embodied position? In other words, I want a diachronic perspective on such a point of view, a diachronic method for constructing synchronies.

    My hope is that my abstracted, buffered point of view is an oscillation in one direction, which then incites a swing in the other direction, that it immediately pushes us back into the immediacy of our embodied positions. I hope it functions like the temporal pause in the gallop when the horse jumps, which wakes the rider, making her realize that she is riding a horse. I have taken Dickinson’s response as an opportunity to highlight the moments on either side of the jump—when the horse leaves the ground and when it touches down again—to reveal the motion on either side of the abstracted, buffered point of view, the motion involved in what I have been trying to leave behind and what I am trying to move towards.


The Social and Carnal Rhythms of Life before God

Lexi Eikelboom’s book Rhythm: A Theological Category is intriguing for many reasons, foremost among which is the way she anticipates what Carol Levine calls the iterability or portability of forms from one area of study to others. According to Levine, as “an arrangement of elements . . . an ordering, patterning, or shaping,” a form should not be regarded as the exclusive provenance of any specific discipline. For her project Eikelboom imports the category of rhythm into Christian theology, where she contends it gives important insights into many of its big questions, such as the consequences that metaphysical commitments have for construing the God-creature relationship.

She rightly recognizes that we cannot determine what insights the notion of rhythm might contribute to the work of theology by reading or writing poems; this only happens by way of discursive reflection. To this end Eikelboom employs a phenomenological analysis of two ways that theorists conceive of poetic rhythm. A synchronic approach comprehends rhythm from the outside, much as architects look at a blueprint “as a pattern of interlocking shapes,” whereas a diachronic approach is abstracted from experience in time, “as one reads or listens through a poem” (25). She then relates them as oscillations between the diachronic apprehension of a pattern, form, or shape, and synchronic experiences of a given pattern, form, or shape. Synchronic approaches thus emphasize harmony and continuity, the diachronic interruption.

Eikelboom juxtaposes synchronic and diachronic as substantially different phenomenological viewpoints, but I suggest instead that we see them as integrated dimensions of existence that work in productive tension with each other. Her juxtaposition works most effectively when operating at a high level of generality, for example, when she interacts with the metaphysics of Erich Przywara (a most impressive chapter), but less so in other aspects, limited to back-and-forth oscillations between continuity and disruption, formation and deformation. In addition, when a form imported from other modes of life is used in isolation, a narrowing of content tends to occur. On the other hand, when one form is complemented by others drawn from related fields of human expression, we have access to a greater range and density of representation.

Two such fields are narrative and tonal music, which together with poetry provide an expanded repertoire of tropes, analogies, and other notions that enable us to represent one thing in terms of another. Eikelboom does not do much with music (which seems strange, since rhythm is one of the basic elements of music), and for the most part relegates narrative to representing harmony and continuity within synchronic patterns. In her critique of Robert Jenson’s soteriology (much of which I find persuasive) she states that “it is not at all clear, from the nature of the human experience of time or from the form of scripture itself, that narrative is the form that ought to be privileged and therefore that harmony and continuity likewise ought to be privileged in our attempts to understand the nature of salvation” (205). She repeats this sentiment when discussing the ways Jenson and David Congdon relate eschatology and history, with Jenson describing them under the form of narrative as coextensive and harmonious, and Congdon favoring apocalyptic disruption that treats them as mutually opposed.

To be fair, Eikelboom does not completely shut out the function of narrative. At one point in her engagement with Przywara she describes the difference between theopanism and the theological analogy as “the difference between a ‘speculative theology’ of a priori metaphysics, and a properly ecclesial theology.” Przywara characterizes the latter, she says, as “a theology of the divine made visible in the church, as it unfolds over the course of time,” and which grows out of “the soteriological narrative of God’s engagement with history” (125).

For the most part, though, Eikelboom privileges a certain construal of the idea of experience as the operative form of human intelligibility. As her statement about Jenson suggests, a “human experience of time,” which she then sets alongside the category of narrative to assess its adequacy, connotes what Richard Swinburne calls a “conscious mental going-on.” Such arrangements are reminiscent of Charles Taylor’s description of the “buffered self” that imagines itself existing at an epistemic distance from everything that lies outside the “mind.”

Contrast Eikelboom’s understanding with the way we regularly use this term in everyday life to refer to an experienced teacher, soccer player, or businessperson, that is, to someone who has over time learned a good deal about a particular area of life. In this sense, “experience” names what human beings have gone through and lived out in company with others, its most distinctive feature having to do with what humans have learned about the timely character of their lives in relation to God and one another, for good and for evil. From this standpoint, experience is the purview of narrative, arising from the social settings that encompass our practices and institutions of life and language.

Sidelining narrative as a complementary form deprives us of important insights into human existence. Stories, whether fictional and historical, animated in and through the interaction of the synchronic and the diachronic, manifests the core feature of our individual and social existence, our historicity. Humans exist in history, make history, suffer history, and most important of all, humans learn from what we have made and suffered. A narrative understanding of history as a “coming to learn” (a favorite phrase of Gillian Rose) is the most fruitful platform, not just for metaphysics, but also for politics and ecclesiology as well (I shall come back to this topic below). We conceive of an event as historical because it is reflected into being in us, not as an isolated occurrence, but as linked with other happenings, all of which contribute to the development of a plot, allowing us to see these events interacting with each other in movements of retrospection and anticipation. We recognize plot in the act of following a story, tracking unfolding events and character responses in situations that change. These changes disclose previously hidden features of both the characters and the setting, and give rise to new predicaments to which the characters must respond.

The actions, words, and feelings of the characters that inhabit the plot of a story thus exhibit a certain directedness. Carried along by the unfolding of plot and subplots, their continuities and its disruptions (it would be boring story if nothing unexpected ever happened), we form a sense of how a story will conclude, though we often discover that we need to revise our expectations. “In this sense,” says Paul Ricoeur, “the ‘conclusion’ of the story is the pole of attraction of the whole process.” Since a narrative lacks a law-like structure, and the best stories hold our attention in suspense by innumerable contingencies, such that at any point in the story we cannot say with any degree of certainty what will happen next, a narrative’s conclusion cannot be deduced or predicted beforehand, and we must therefore follow it to the end.

The intentional or teleological movement of a plot thus involves both synchronic and diachronic dimensions, the latter referring to a story’s episodic quality, as successive events are narrated in such a way as to create the tension, the sense that things cannot be left as they are that lend shape and direction to the story’s development. It is due to this dimension that we are led to ask: Yes, then what happened? And then? How will it all turn out? A story, therefore, is not just one damn thing after another, for it also gathers together an intelligible whole from distinct events and actions, relating successive happenings, not just in patterns of continuity and disruption, but through progressions, delays, reversals, nonidentical repetitions, partial resolutions, and the like. This aspect of following a story is a function of its nonchronological aspect, discerning a configuration of events within a succession. Even the most humble of tales is never simply a unilinear sequence of events, and the configurational dimension requires the episodic to remain recognizable as a narrative. A narrative, whether historical or fictional (there are significant aspects of the latter in the former), arises in the conjoining of synchronic and diachronic dimensions.

The range and diversity of discernible movements and patterns conveyed by narrative is complemented, enhanced and deepened by tonal music, another iterable form that exhibits its own kind of directionality through alternating movements of tension and resolution. This tension is created through events involving one or more elements (melody, harmony, and tempo in the diachronic dimension, meter, rhythm, volume, and orchestration in the synchronic) that in an almost infinite range of ways generate a sense of incompleteness and thus gesture to a disclosure to come. Musical events that satisfy, either partially or finally, as expected or in surprising ways, that sense of incompleteness and anticipation, are called resolutions, again analogous to the resolutions of plot development in a narrative.

Another disconcerting aspect of Eikelboom’s work is her summary declaration that the church is not a polis or society; her preferred designation for it is as an event, that is, “a site of crossings and oscillations that frustrate binary stand-offs” (214). This is not only an incredibly thin description of any historically extended, socially embodied community, it contradicts over two thousand years of Jewish and Christian self-understanding. “The circumcised body of Israel is,” writes Michael Wyschogrod, “the dark, carnal presence through which the redemption makes its way in history. . . . It is the carnal anchor that God has sunk into the soil of creation.” The Christian story, narrated around the themes of incarnation and Pentecost, is meaningless apart from Israel’s carnal body.

Eikelboom never tells us what actually makes for a polis or a society, and thus why we have to guess why the term cannot characterize the church-community. I can only surmise that the sole entity that qualifies as the one “public square” is the nation-state (in its alliance with the globalizing market). The nation-state assigns the roles all other groups and communities are to play for the health and well-being of “society” (another singular terms that in contemporary political discourse stands in for what the ancient Greeks called the polis, in Latin civitas, and in Arabic, madīnah). It would seem that for Eikelboom the “event” of the church functions much as conscience does in the individual, but it can never challenge the social whole as such.

I am painfully aware that the designation of the church as a res publica can be distorted into the illusion that it exists quasi-independently of the world of time and space, and thus agree with Eikelboom when she states that all attempts to specify once and for all the difference between church and world close us off from God. Nevertheless, it still is the body politic of Christ (consistently described by New Testament writers with political terms), with all of its foibles and faults, that stakes a claim about human existence in the midst of a world where people deal with the necessities of eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, beget children, bury parents, acquire and dispose of property, and produce and exchange goods. This notion of staking is another favorite of Rose. She contends that suspending the ethical makes possible the representing of formation or education (Bildung) in the “broken middle” as “a struggle—agon—in which ‘violence’ (a slippery term in Rose’s oeuvre) is inseparable from staking oneself, from experiences as such—the initial yet yielding recalcitrance of action and passion. Without ‘violence,’ which is not sacrifice but risk, language, labour, love—life—would not live.” Such a staking is an act of faith that admits the possibility of error and critique and does not seek to foreclose on the wondrous diversity of creation, thus opening the way to conversation and change with respect to the other.

Finally, I affirm with Eikelboom Przywara’s understanding of the incarnation as Christ resting patiently in human ordinariness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer similarly writes in one of his prison letters of the profound this-worldliness of Christianity, and therefore Christians should see themselves simply as humans, “in the same way that Jesus was a human being.” Profound worldliness, he continues, requires discipline and a knowledge of death and resurrection, neither of which happens spontaneously or episodically, but through participation in a societas that cultivates the practices, institutions and stories that make human ordinariness a practical possibility in the midst of the contingencies of history. This community is called to live, move, and have its being in contrapuntal engagement with the broken middle of the world, its distinctiveness (in ways bearing certain features of a sect) challenging the any social group whose boundaries exclude any segment of the human race.

  • Lexi Eikelboom


    Disrupting Privileged Forms

    I am delighted that Harvey opens his response with Caroline Levine’s book Forms. Form is the topic of my current research project, but, as Harvey intimates, the category of form operates in the background of Rhythm as well. As a form (by which Levine means a kind of shape with particular affordances that crosses multiple domains), rhythm can be approached through its relationship to other forms: networks, hierarchies, narratives, etc. This is the register at which Rhythm operates. The advantage of approaching a category in this formal way is that it allows us to more easily cross domains (metaphysics, experience, literature, music, politics), which shows how domains work together and influence one another despite the fact that our discourse tends to artificially divide them from one another.

    I submit that the objections Harvey has here raised are the result of a misunderstanding at this formal level, specifically, of how I take the form “rhythm” to relate to other forms. Harvey’s primary charge is that I sideline other forms, such as narrative, rather than engaging in an exploration of their complementary relationship to rhythm. In one way, this is true, and it is a certain kind of limitation. It is why I am currently writing a book on forms more generally. Nevertheless, I also think that these are simply two different projects with different advantages and limitations. Taking rhythm on its own allowed me to explore the significance of its unique affordances, which have—I argue—been overlooked, in part due to an overemphasis on the narrative form in theology. Rhythm is a corrective to our tendency to privilege certain forms, specifically, the narrative form. So my problem with narrative is not with the form itself but with the ways in which it has been set up as the privileged form through which theologians access reality. Harvey here simply reasserts that privilege.

    More to the point, however, even though Rhythm is a study of one sort of form, one of its insights is that the way in which one thinks about rhythm’s relationship to other forms effects how rhythm is understood. One can think about rhythm as enabling a whole, as establishing flow, as enabling a hierarchy, as causing disruptions to wholes, flows, or hierarchies. The forms through which one thinks rhythm molds its definition and significance to be in service to that form. In fact, this is an affordance (to use Levine’s language) that I attribute to rhythm: it molds itself to other forms. By drawing attention to this, my objective is to loosen the hold of any one particular form through which rhythm might be reified. Harvey has here reinscribed that hold with respect to the narrative form.

    The crucial bit of apparatus that I set up to disrupt the hold of any particular form is the necessary methodological and epistemological oscillation between synchronic and diachronic perspectives. Harvey thinks that I overly-juxtapose the two perspectives, proposing, instead, that we think of them as integrated dimensions of existence that work in productive tension. He never tells us why he thinks the juxtaposition is inappropriate but, in any case, his claim that they ought to be integrated dimensions of existence misses the point of the apparatus. As Harvey himself points out, I juxtapose the two, not as parts of reality, but as perspectives. My reason for this is to make clear that one cannot stand in both places at the same time such that a static view of the whole could be achieved.

    The way in which Harvey describes narrative suggests to me that he does end up with a static view of the whole in which narrative is everything, despite his claims that he wants to introduce complementary forms. But I will come to that. First, let me affirm with Harvey that I do think that narrative can be approached from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. That sentence, though, is subtly but importantly different from the language Harvey uses to make this point.

    Harvey’s says that I relegate “narrative to representing harmony and continuity within synchronic patterns.” This language indicates a particular way of thinking about these categories to which I do not in fact subscribe. I do not think there is such a thing as a synchronic pattern, only a synchronic view of or approach to a pattern. “Synchronic” is a term designating a particular type of perspective, epistemology, or method. It may also be, as my response to Pattison suggests, a way to indicate a particular kind of mystical experience. What it is not, is a class of patterns.

    Harvey, however, appears to believe that I think narrative is a subclass of forms under this class called “synchronic patterns” and that this constitutes my objection to narrative. His response is thus aimed at showing how narratives are in fact diachronic in a way that I ought to like. He says “a narrative . . . arises in the conjoining of synchronic and diachronic elements.” If he means it can be approached from both synchronic and a diachronic perspectives, then: yes, of course. But I do not think there are “synchronic and diachronic elements,” just as I do not juxtapose synchronic and diachronic on the basis of their being two different parts or dimensions of reality itself. I am interested in synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

    When I associate narrative with harmony and continuity—values associated with a synchronic perspective—I am explicating the perspective, epistemology, and method of Robert Jenson, who explicitly opposes narrative to the punctual moment in order to preserve harmony. The association is not mine and I do not intend for it to apply to the narrative form as such, but to the way in which the narrative form has been deployed in theology by thinkers like Jenson, namely in the service of harmonizing. I agree with Harvey that narrative can be approached diachronically, and in a way that is different from how Jenson approaches it. In this respect, Harvey’s response is very helpful in showing us what an understanding of narrative different from that of Jenson might look like.

    Nevertheless, Harvey also showcases a reason that I object to the privileging of the narrative form in theology in the first place. And this brings me back to my worry that Harvey reinscribes a preeminent form, a single perspective, that controls our way of thinking about rhythm. At several points, Harvey makes quite grand claims for the narrative form. For example, he says: “Experience is the purview of narrative, arising from the social settings that encompass our practices, etc.” But this involves no argument for why living in the company of others over time necessarily implies a narrative form. Its place is assumed without justification. Likewise, he says, “A narrative understanding of history as a ‘coming to learn’ (a favorite phrase of Gillian Rose) is the most fruitful platform, not just for metaphysics, but also for politics and ecclesiology as well.” Most fruitful in comparison to what? On the basis of what evidence is the narrative understanding asserted to be the most fruitful platform? What does it even mean for narrative to be a platform for metaphysics, politics, and ecclesiology? Is it a platform for all of these things in the same sort of way? Claims like this rely on an unargued equivocation between temporal experience or history, on the one hand, and the narrative form, on the other.

    To my mind, rather than defending narrative as a form alongside rhythm, Harvey’s outsized claims unsupported by argument or evidence manifest the privileging of narrative on dubious bases. I am happy to consider a complementary relationship between rhythm and another form, but the relationship between rhythm and narrative is not complementary in Harvey’s response since he does not bring his ideas about narrative into conversation with rhythm qua rhythm. He merely says that “stories are rhythmic” without offering an account of how and where narrative and rhythmic forms overlap and diverge and the particular affordances and limitations of each. In the absence of such explication, the largesse of Harvey’s claims about narrative seem to imply that we can subsume the rhythmic form within narrative: narrative gives us rhythm and more. Narrative is “the most fruitful platform,” which seemingly suggests that narrative gives us all the features of rhythm and then some. Rhythm is subsumed within the narrative form.

    This same is true of Harvey’s defense of tonal music. He promotes tonal music on the basis of its proximity to narrative, but it remains unclear what this form adds to the discussion beyond what narrative adds. The argument seems to be: tonal music is like narrative, and narrative is the superlative form, therefore tonal music ought to be considered important. Again, the narrative form remains primary. Thus, no engagement between my analysis of rhythm and tonal music on its own terms actually appears.

    My objective is not to denigrate the narrative form as such. It certainly has salutary aspects and effects, some of which Harvey describes. But it also comes with some specific dangers, which he does not consider. As a form, the narrative privileges certain movements, which Harvey mentions: directedness, the conclusion as the pole of attraction. These ideas have been criticized, not least by arguments against future-oriented temporalities from queer studies, for demeaning the present in favor of the future (e.g., Edelman, 2004; Freeman, 2010). The hegemony of narrative can lead us to not pay attention to events that do not fit its form, or to expect and seek conclusions where this might not be appropriate. Elevating the narrative form as Harvey does without addressing its possible dangers or the objections against some of its features reinforces naïve assumptions about its naturalness. Another way to say this is: Harvey assumes that narrative is the most fruitful platform. But it is not clear to me that this intuition is the result of an inherent correspondence between reality and this particular form, or of the fact that reality appears to us in narrative terms because narrative is a culturally privileged form. I merely ask that we loosen the form a little to find out what possible visions of reality other forms might open up. My objective is to make narrative a little less natural, to introduce more options, so as to make the dangers resulting from its totalization a little less threatening.

    Since my discussion of narrative has taken so much space, I can only briefly respond to Harvey’s final point: that my description of the church is thin. The beauty of a thin description is its humility and its openness to connecting with other perspectives. I am not intending to be comprehensive with my definition and thus I see no reason that my account is incompatible with an approach that focuses on carnal presence. Harvey conflates the idea of polis or society with carnal presence and assumes that because I object to an equation of church with the former, that I also object to its association with the latter. I do not. In Rhythm, however, I opt for minimalism precisely as an invitation to others to work out what incorporating rhythm into their thicker descriptions might help to supplement or encourage or correct or ameliorate. So I find myself wishing that Harvey had spent less time raising objections based on misunderstandings, and more time working out how the rhythmic form—if indeed he thinks it’s useful at all—amplifies, challenges, or illuminates aspects of the things that he cares about: narrative, tonal music, flesh, church. This was the point of the book.


Naming God

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.

  1. Martin Buber, Moses (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1952), 60.

  2. Martin Buber, Der Glaube der Propheten (Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1984), 27.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.

  • Lexi Eikelboom


    Weaving Rhythms Together: A Natural Theology of Naming God

    Pattison has improvised a lovely theme on the naming of God in response to Rhythm. And, as good improvisations do, it has inspired in me an improvisation in turn on the tension in the idea of the synchronic that Pattison’s reflections have illuminated.

    In Rhythm, I most often talk about the synchronic in methodological terms. As a methodological perspective, a synchronic view is an attempt to catalogue the relations that make up the whole as if from a distance. Pattison’s analogy to a musical score works well here. A rhythm viewed synchronically is one reified in a musical score. But Pattison’s use of the word in discussing the naming of God is not about methodology. This type of synchronic has less to do with an attempt to define a rhythm, and more to do with a distinctive type of mystical presence encountered from within the rhythm. It makes the whole more than a mere temporal sequence, but not as something that could be synchronically mapped. Rather, the synchronic is itself something, paradoxically, encountered in time. It therefore eludes our attempts to grasp and map.

    For me, Pattison’s description of the synchronic brings to mind Jean Yves-Lacoste’s image of the synchronic at the beginning of Experience and the Absolute, in which the diachronically-immersed self is suddenly taken out of his or her location in time, albeit only in a mystical sense. One sees the whole of the world in a vision, symbolically. It is not possible to in fact see the whole, to become removed from one’s particular context and location. Thus, the vision is a mystical one and not, strictly speaking, an experience. It is ecstatic, as Pattison says. It is an interruption to experience.

    But this interruption is rhythmic because it is also not so wholly other than experience that it does not communicate with temporality at all. It makes a difference to the time and experience in which it occurs even if it is significantly different than other experiences. The particular type of synchronic event that Pattison describes—an ecstatic encounter with God—is a synchronic glimpsed from within the diachronic. And this highlights an important aspect of my argument: the methodological privileging of the diachronic, that is, a recognition of the temporal locatedness of the thinker, is a prerequisite for the ecstatic synchronic that Pattison here describes. In other words, while there may be a sort of ontological priority given to the synchronic, this priority is predicated on the epistemological priority of the diachronic. A synchronic experience that disrupts our knowing is impossible if knowledge is synchronic at the outset, since if one can see the whole pattern, disruption is foreclosed. If one can see the whole as one could see a score sheet, then there are no surprises. Understood in this way, the synchronic is the most diachronic of experiences.

    This is the tension of the synchronic. A synchronic perspective refers to a view of the whole at once. That view might be accessed through a kind of epistemological mapping, or it might be received an interruptive, mystical event. Such encounters may be synchronic glimpses, but their affective resonance is that of surprise, not that of mapping and controlling. Affectively speaking, then, the idea of the synchronic evokes two opposite dispositions, two opposite events.

    This is the reason that I have found thinking with Giorgio Agamben to be fruitful. Agamben interrogates the duality that is part of events that operate at a different register than the stream of experience. He uses a variety of images to express the significance of these events, many of them rhythmic. One such image is that of the caesura—a sudden stop in the middle of a line of poetry. He describes the rhythm of the poem as a rider who has fallen asleep on a horse—time—which carries the rider along unawares. The mid-line interruption to the steady rhythmic gallop of the horse when it jumps over a barrier wakes the rider, making her aware that she rides a horse at all. Interruption—a phenomenon encountered in time, predicated on being in time—both momentarily takes one out of time and, in doing so, makes one aware of time. Awareness of time requires its suspension.

    Agamben thinks this duality makes these moments both dangerous and promising. They are the moments on which whole oppressive systems are built and the moments from which they might be dismantled. They are plastic, capable of being operationalized in flexible ways because they exceed the systems that have been built upon them. Interestingly, Agamben associates this plastic power with eschatology, which brings me to Pattison’s point that the end is an ecstasy that is experienced in time even as it is not itself temporal.

    For Agamben, the caesura and the end of the poem are both the same sort of thing. The end of the poem is a paradox. It is only at the end that the poem’s character and shape are clear, and the poem therefore strains towards that end. However, this realization of the poem occurs precisely at the moment when its unique temporality ends. More specifically, poetic temporality is generated by the tension between sound and meaning and at the of the poem the two finally resolve into one. The poem reveals itself at the moment when it is no longer itself, just as the gallop of time reveals itself when one is momentarily suspended from it. Because the poem dissolves at the moment of its realization, it also resists its end. It does not move to its ending as quickly as possible, but through tensions—like that of the caesura—that slow it down. In both drawing the poem forward and delaying its advance, the end of the poem is the condition of the poem’s formal structure and the possibility of its existence as poetry. This provides us, I think, with an image of what I can mean for the end to be both an end and experienceable in the diachronic unfolding. The caesura and the poem’s end are both suspensions of the temporal rhythm, yet also integral to it.

    Most of us don’t receive mystical visions. Even if thinkers like Jean-Yves Lacoste and Jean-Luc Marion want to associate this experience with liturgy and prayer, many of us do not experience liturgy and prayer as giving us mystical visions of the whole of reality. Sometimes, however, they do suspend the flow of time. But those who do not engage in prayer at all also experience events that suspend time—grief, love, new birth, trauma. (Perhaps even pandemic-related measures have constituted a kind of protracted caesura, even if its intensity is spread out due to that protraction.) These events heighten the brain’s plasticity, which enables it to make new connections, build new stories, form new perspectives, and dislodge entrenched patterns. The unusual chemical baths generated by both positively-experienced events like falling in love or negatively-experienced ones like trauma both present opportunities for the brain to reorganize itself. As Agamben says of such unusual events, plasticity can manifest as both damage and flourishing; time-suspending events can tighten our grip or open us up. The point is that, at a formal level, they manifest a relationship between the otherness of the experience and its embeddedness in time. Such events are, as Pattison says, a “forward glance, the synchronic intuition that makes everything that follows possible.”

    This formal register suggests, I think, a kind of natural theology of the naming of God. The question of what such experiences—cataclysmic but not explicitly Christian or religious—have to do with the naming of God is, it seems to me, the question that incites us to practices like prayer. Prayer and liturgy may not always be the direct instigators of ecstatic events, although they might be. But what they offer more consistently is a space within which to make sense of those events, to figure out how to move forward with them, to connect them to the naming of God, to direct the plasticity in a certain direction. Pattison points to Buber’s analysis of the song of Deborah, which responds rhythmically to a traumatic event.

    Pattison says that the kind of ecstatic synchronic he describes is singular, like a name. I want to add that what it means for the divine name to be associated with such ecstatic events is also singular. The relationship between the ecstatic event and what follows, how it is understood—as evil or divine or something else—will not be the same in every instance. It must be worked out in time, diachronically. We would rightly want to identify the divine in a more direct way with an event like the birth of a child than we would with trauma. We may find the divine is located in opposition to the trauma or in some other relationship to it than identification; the relationship must be worked out in each instance, and the event instigates such working-out however God is named in relation to it.

    This relationship between the ecstatic event, on the one hand, and putting it to work, on the other, is theologically important to me in its own right regardless of these vast differences content. It is why I wrote Rhythm. As I sit here in pandemic lockdown in Melbourne, Australia, separated from almost everyone, I wonder if I’m drawn to these formal patterns because they join me to others in spite of the differences between the particularities of our experiences and the singularities of our namings. Aloneness is a feature, I think, of such mystical synchronic events and intuitions. Our cataclysms are never exactly the same as anyone else’s and yet they are intensely meaningful and formative. Rhythmically putting them to work, working at naming God in response to such intuitions, is a way of weaving those meaningful and formative experiences together with those of others, despite our differences. In trying to identify something shared about the texture of human experience, I feel less alone. Since my work on rhythm has brought me into this improvised conversation, I think it has succeeded somewhat in acting as a loom on which to weave our improvisations together (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor). I am glad to know that I even share George Pattison’s reading habits.