Symposium Introduction

The future of religion and belief of God is contested territory in a secular age. There is a plurality of spiritual options available, many of which directly confront each other with contrasting and conflicting certainties, and many of which withdraw from religious commitment, arguing for tentativeness and epistemic humility. In the midst of this often-confusing diversity, Ryan Duns, SJ, offers his Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: Desmond and the Quest for God. His proposal is that the philosophy of William Desmond can serve as a form of spiritual exercise that opens the world up to the transcendent, to God. This opening to God is not through definitive argument but through reshaping how we see and inhabit the world. It is not a matter of what a person sees, but of how they see. Desmond’s various philosophical writings and arguments, Duns suggests, are not meant to be analyzed from an objective distance, but to be lived through and experienced. The reader is encouraged to take a risk, to open themselves to the patterns and directions of Desmond’s philosophy which open up the human person and the entire world to the transcendent.

Duns takes his reader on an opening exploration of Charles Taylor’s analysis of secularism. Taylor, though certainly sympathetic and open to the possibilities of religious belief in our contemporary world, lacks a robust metaphysical framework within which openness to the divine makes sense. Duns suggests that Desmond provides just this framework, one which is philosophically rigorous and also attuned to the various challenges to belief Taylor’s analysis uncovers. Spiritual Exercises offers multiple pathways into Desmond’s work, introducing his metaphysical vocabulary, and showing how his arguments and explorations can be fruitfully undergone as spiritual exercise. For example, there is a powerful section on Desmond’s treatment of nihilism. Nihilism, on Duns’s read, is not merely an academic philosophical proposal, but an experience to be undergone, where we are purged of false gods by the threat of nothingness, and new possibilities for encountering the divine emerge. As Duns writes, “Desmond wants us not only to think about but to feel how the crush of to nihil recasts our lives” (152). In another example, Duns works similarly with Desmond’s “Indirect Ways to God,” noting that Desmond’s proofs for God “are not neutral arguments. They are, rather, practices intended to reawaken practitioners to a new, or renewed, sense of God” (188).

Duns, then, through his reading of Desmond, transcends two dualisms. First, the dualism of epistemic certainty and epistemic humility: there are indeed ways to know and encounter God (contra humility), but they are indirect ways, which decenter and open the self beyond itself (contra certainty). Secondly, the dualism of theory and practice: under Desmond’s guidance, theory is practice, and is meant to be undergone as such. Without sacrificing any intellectual rigor, Duns points us beyond self-contained philosophy and invites the reader into an embodied, emotional, rational, fully human encounter with the divine.

It is important to engage with Duns’s work precisely because it speaks so pertinently to contemporary concerns about the viability of belief in and encounter with God and to how the academic disciplines of philosophy and theology can reach beyond the academy and contribute to a renewal of religious faith today. Six panelists have carefully read Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age and emerged with a diverse and intriguing set of responses and questions, reflecting the broad implications the book suggests not only for theology and philosophy, but areas as various as psychology, interreligious dialogue, education, and more.

Mara Brecht forges a passionate encounter between Desmond’s metaphysics and mothering. Her embodied, fleshly experience of bearing and raising children provides a rich matrix of analogies and metaphors which, she suggests, should be attended to in Christian theology, particularly the doctrine of creation. Pushing further into the unity of theory and practice, Brecht notices how the very practice of mothering opened for her new paths to God, new cracks in creation that point towards the Creator. If Desmond encourages attentiveness to the metaxu, the “between” in which we live out our lives, then that includes attentiveness to the practice and experience of mothering.

Renee Kohler-Ryan’s response focuses on prayer. She closely examines both the resonances and the points of tension between Desmond and Taylor. Duns’s use of Desmond’s philosophy as a viable spiritual exercise, even in a secular age, indicates that Desmond’s strong claim of the constitutive porosity of the human person to the transcendent is preferable to Taylor’s historical argument that a secular age has perhaps changed this porous constitution of the human one which is closed, or at least potentially closed, to transcendence. Duns’s approach to Desmond’s metaphysics shows that the human person is necessarily porous, whether in the premodern era, or our own secular age.

Mark Novak delves deeper into the formative potential of the spiritual exercises that Duns demonstrates are the consequence of much of Desmond’s philosophy. Novak emphasizes that such formative practices are fully embodied, not only cognitive or “spiritual” transformations. He also asks about the liturgical and cultural belonging of such holistic spiritual practices: is Demond’s philosophy formative only for those within a Christian religious and culture sphere, or do they reach beyond the boundaries of specific religious traditions? Can spiritual exercises be effective for people shaped by a non- or even counter-Christian perspective?

This question of the range of spiritual exercises beyond the Christian tradition is also raised by Neal DeRoo, who appreciates how persuasive Desmond’s philosophy appears within a Christian framework but worries that Duns’s specific references to Christianity might not engage non-Christian readers (secular or from other religious traditions). For DeRoo this raises the question of whether Duns is advancing a particular content or truth claims in these philosophical-spiritual exercises. Do these exercises push beyond merely “how” we see the world to “what” we see in the world?

Felix Ó Murchadha presses into the relation/distinction between philosophy and theology. He worries that, for Duns, philosophy and theology are related to the point of combining without distinction. The distinction between them is too quickly eliminated if philosophical questions find theological answers. Philosophy needs to maintain its own integrity, Ó Murchadha suggests, without too quickly fulfilling itself in religion and theology.

Finally, Alexandra T. Romanyshyn unpacks a narrative of selfhood at work in Duns’s book. She shows an intimate connection between Desmond’s metaphysical categories and the development of the self. This is an excellent demonstration of how theory and practice, or metaphysics and spirituality, ought not to be divorced from each other. Desmond’s metaphysics provides rich resources to describe and understand how a person moves through their life in seasons of stability, instability, and re-stability in self-transcendence. Romanyshyn’s example of a graduate student in philosophy who grows and matures through these phases is a lovely concluding offering for Duns to consider how spiritually and personally meaningful his work is and can be.

It has been a great pleasure to curate this discussion around Duns’s thought-provoking and timely work. Many, many thanks to all the contributors who carefully read and responded to Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age. Thanks to Sean Larsen for his encouragement to initially pursue this symposium and throughout the process. Above all, thanks to Duns for offering us such creative and (to my mind) persuasive treatment of Desmond’s philosophy and, more broadly, the continuing power of faith in God in a secular age.

Response

Mothering and Metaxology

I count Ryan Duns among my old friends, and even if you aren’t fortunate enough to say the same, I wager that you’ll find friendship with him through this book. It was a great pleasure to read Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age, because the wonderful book reminded me of what it’s like to spend time in Ryan’s company and allowed me to sample the “metaxological pudding” he generously shares with the reader (xxvi). As I see it, it’s not just that Ryan is friendly to readers, it’s that his whole project—the writing style and its content—is in fact an invitation to fellowship with him, with William Desmond, and, ultimately, with God.

Ryan’s style is friendly, warm, and conversational. He describes his writing as allusive, meaning that he regularly refers to stories (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings), poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins and Denise Levertov), and music (Peggy Lee and traditional Irish folk) to make his points, “to draw connections between ideas” (xxiv). He dips into his experiences of teaching high school and college students, offering anecdotes about the funny things he’s said and the tactics he’s tried. This is practical and engaging. And, remarkably, he keeps the jargon to a minimum. Throughout the text Ryan laughs at himself, and you get the feeling that he wants the reader to laugh along with him. All of this I count as meritorious.

The book’s first chapter (“Beating the Bounds of a Secular Age”) is stage-setting, and useful both to seeing Ryan’s basic argument (namely, William Desmond’s philosophy can function as a spiritual practice, opening a person to the transcendent) and to navigating and appreciating the thesis, argumentative strategy, and challenges raised by a difficult thinker and text (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). The first chapter stands on its own, and can offer a solid guide to Taylor as well as an enticing and approachable introduction to Desmond. I could see assigning this chapter in an advanced undergraduate or graduate-level theology course on metaphysics and God. (I know I’ve been told not to write a standard book review, but the teacher in me can’t help but name how this book could function in terms of teaching!)

Ryan unfolds his interpretive argument of Desmond’s work in the remaining chapters of the book. And it is here that I sink my teeth into the metaxological pudding.

A bit of important context: As I sit reading Ryan’s book, I am rounding the bend into my ninth month of pregnancy, preparing to give birth to my fourth child. I am quite literally bloated and burgeoning with new life. I rest my coffee cup on my huge belly as I pencil notes into the book’s margins and then swat toddler’s hands that waywardly press on my laptop’s keyboard as I (try to) type. My children are all under the age of five, always crawling on me, and always complicating any effort to get work done.

These details about me—how I’m situated, how I body, as I read the book and write this piece—are not sidenote details or mere accidents. To the contrary, they help explain my reading of Ryan’s work, my engagement with William Desmond’s metaxology, and the point of broader significance that I hope to convey. How I’m situated allows me to make a remarkable connection to the book: I see metaxological askesis running on a parallel, but inverse, track to the basic and profound acts of mothering, and the theological to be truths found there—if only we look. I live in the embodiment of metaxology, and Desmond’s metaphysics, refracted through Ryan’s perceptive interpretation and discussion, allowed me to discover this.

In Charred Root of Meaning, Phillip W. Rosemann brings postmodern philosophy to bear on an account of the Christian tradition, arguing that “otherness, disruption, marginality, transgression”—in other words, the centermost values of postmodern philosophy—are “precisely what has been missing in theological and philosophical discussions of tradition.”1 The Christian tradition (like all traditions) is in need of periodic retrievals, which have been demonstrated historically by phenomena “such as reformation, ressourcement, and ‘destruction.’”2 Ryan’s argument for the viability of metaxology might be framed as a kind of reformation or ressourcement, a disruptive act of putting a thoroughly marginalized discourse (metaphysics) back on the contemporary theological table. His argues this not by fiat, but instead by leveraging Pierre Hadot’s exploration of ancient philosophy as a practice of life rather than discourse about life and applying the distinction to Desmond’s work (133).

Spiritual practices, Ryan argues, “shift how we perceive the world” (180). Instead of providing information about the world, spiritual practices shape how we navigate, receive, and respond to it. They are formative therefore, rather than informative. While Ryan doubtless appreciates the informative elements of Desmond’s metaxology, his principal aim is to highlight its formative possibilities.

Ryan’s move to frame metaxology as a practice is intuitive: For Desmond’s system of thought is already by its nature oriented toward the practices of lived reality. As Ryan explains, metaxological metaphysics “demands fidelity to the metaxu” and assures us that our “wholeness” lies in, not apart from, the metaxu (77, 112). Beginning from the premise that the between-space, the middle-ground, the messiness of the day-to-day is where we are rocked back, awestruck, and astonished, Desmond then invites his audience to think from those experiences—to consider reflectively, deeply what meaning lies there (108–9).

This premise, translated into a life practice, allows a person to become attuned to “the various fissures and ‘cracks’ through which the intimate strangeness of being can address us” (77), to see all around the “inherent fragility of being” (100), and to see it as cause for joy rather than despair; and to recognize “being’s gratuity” (113). In short, metaxology orients us to recognize encounters with the transcendent, more than it describes or argues for the transcendent.

To my mind, this captures the matters of mothering exactly. What Desmond describes and Ryan draws out—the intimate strangeness of being, the inherent fragility of being, being’s gratuity—are more than just familiar themes to mothers. They are integral, maybe even intrinsic, to mothering. Of course, I cannot speak for all experiences of mothering, and I don’t presume to. But, for me, there is nothing so awe-striking and extraordinary as the experience of giving birth and finally touching my hand to a creature I’ve felt move within me for months—the intimate strangeness of being. When I look upon my tiny suckling infant, I weep with joy at his desperate need to be nourished and grow—the inherent fragility of being. I marvel at my own power to groan forward new creation, to push life into the here and now—being’s gratuity. And now here I sit, my fourth child growing in my belly, and deeply familiar with the metaxu of pregnancy—this middle ground, this between space, this astonishing and awesome day-to-day.

The metaxu of mothering, I suggest, is itself a kind spiritual practice, felt and lived by many of us who are situated, who body, as mothers. Mothering shapes how one navigates, receives, and responds to the world: It opens a person to the web of fissures and cracks in everything. It places me in a constant state of joyful and exhausting awe. It forces an encounter with the mysterious power of creation, of life. And, yet, for all its formative power, mothering has been shunted as a valuable theological source. (As I prepared to write this essay, I was hesitant to make mothering the subject, even as all of my marginalia circulated around this theme.)

If it is indeed the case that the Christian tradition—in our moment as much as in any—needs periodic retrievals (as Rosemann argues, and Ryan’s first chapter in particular demonstrates), we must always be attentive to Rosemann’s questions: What’s missing? What’s been left out? To these, I add my humble offering: And why?

With awareness of these questions—and a sense that the metaxu of mothering has been largely dislocated from theological discourse—I am led to the conclusion, as I say, that metaxological askesis runs on a parallel, but inverse, track to the profound practice of mothering: Mothering is theologically formative, but it has not been invited—or allowed—to be informative. In this way, Ryan’s project to amplify Desmond’s thought has more critical potential than first meets the eye. Let me explain.

Elizabeth Johnson reminds us of the corrosive effect “centuries of patriarchal theology” has had both on women’s ways of being in the world and on women’s experience qua theological source. She calls for theologians, people of faith, and church leaders to attend to “women’s experience of themselves as blessed before God” as a “powerful religious event” that at the same time, “brings in its wake a new sense of God.”3 In other words, Johnson argues for the informative potential of women’s experiences—such as the experience of mothering—for theological discourse, but this begins with valuing women’s experiences as formative practices.

This isn’t to say that the value of Ryan’s book—or Desmond’s metaxological project—resides in the fact that it points us necessarily or only to mothering. Rather, their mutual projects call people of faith—or better, empower people of faith—to be attentive to the theologically informative possibilities of our formational in-between experiences.

I conclude with an example that attempts to weave together the various strands of this response. In Ryan’s chapter “Exercising Transcendence,” he briefly engages Catherine Keller’s discussion of creatio ex nihilo. Keller, according to Ryan, “sounds a Caputo-like chord in her suspicion” (196) of the doctrine. She rejects it. Creatio ex nihilo is undergirded by a bankrupt binary logic—a metaphysical logic—of good or evil, corporeal or incorporeal, almighty or powerless, all of which sets God apart from and unmoved by the chaos of creation (197).

Turning to metaphysics as a contemplative practice, Ryan argues for keeping creatio ex nihilo around, but he does so while also embracing Keller’s critique that creatio ex nihilo is fundamentally wrongheaded and misleading. Creatio ex nihilo, Ryan convincingly suggests, should not be understood as a “knockdown objectifying proof” but instead “a mystagogical opening, enticing us to a rekindled sense of awe” (198).

Yes, you can get to Keller’s insights about the problems of creatio ex nihilo by post-metaphysical argumentation. Yes, you can get to Ryan’s insight about the “crack” in creation from nothing by metaxological contemplative practice. But, I propose, it may also possible to arrive at these places by even more “local” paths.

Since having children, for example, I read Genesis 1 and can only laugh at the suggestion it tells the story of a powerful, impassive creator taming chaos. If you want to know how little creation has to do with control, and how agonizing creation is to the creator, peek into the labor and delivery ward. Listen to a preschooler tell you the story of her day. Look at my living room on a Saturday morning after a few hours of play.

Detritus accumulates, paths wind, mess multiplies, fluid oozes, chaos abounds. Life overflows. And the ultimate maker of it all—God, mother—lets.

Creation as letting is precisely the truth Keller and Desmond drive toward, post-metaphysically and metaxologically, and it is also the truth that my life, my experience, my very body, confirms daily. What would happen to Christian theological discourse if we were converted to the formative and informative potential of human experiences, particularly those that have been covered over and dismissed?

It seems to me that thinking from the metaxu ought not just turn us to the transcendent, as Desmond and Ryan would have it, but also to critical questions about why some ways to the transcendent have been displaced, marginalized, and eschewed. I look forward to a full range of discoveries and probing questions that will emerge from mindfully mining our metaxu.


  1. Phillip W. Rosemann, Charred Roots of Meaning: Continuity, Transgression, and the Other in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), Kindle.

  2. Rosemann, Charred Roots of Meaning.

  3. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), 128.

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Reply

    Response to Mara Brecht

    I confess that, on reading Mara Brecht’s probing and generous response to my book, I felt a twinge of nostalgia. I met Mara at Fordham University in 2006 when she, a recent graduate from Harvard Divinity, was beginning her doctoral studies and I, a newly vowed Jesuit, was starting my studies in philosophy. I was privileged to be in seminars with Mara where I saw the power of her mind and her theological acumen. Our time at Fordham was marked, too, by a vibrant social circle where many of us developed deep and lasting friendships. Mara has recently moved to Loyola University of Chicago and I, just ninety minutes up the road in Milwaukee, look forward to seeing my old friend in the flesh.

    Mara’s reflection uncovers what I find most attractive and compelling about William Desmond’s metaxological metaphysics. Metaphysics, as envisioned and practiced by Desmond, mindfully probes the interrelationships that bind all of creation into a community with one another and with the Creator. Mara brilliantly captures this relationality with her description of mothering and her carnal awareness of the “intimate strangeness of being.” Indeed, as I read Mara’s response, I was seized by the brilliance of her insight. What she aptly calls the “metaxu of mothering” is a concrete instance of Desmond’s meta-physics. What arises “amid” (meta) being or “within” the flesh of Mara’s being can, when mindfully probed, be interpreted as pointing “beyond” (meta) finite being to the Creator and sustainer of all being. The life that stirs within, the “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:24), must be birthed and freed to range without. Such is the promise and peril of creation. To create is to give rise to what is other to the self and to stand before one’s creation in a “constant state of joyful and exhausting awe.” To create requires commending the beloved other to the “web of fissures and cracks in everything” where each one of us must discern, and embrace, who we are called by love to become.

    As I have learned over the years, I am always better for having thought along with Mara. By foregrounding the maternal dimension of metaxological metaphysics, Mara issues an invitation to retrieve and theologically redeploy the image of “mothering.” Make no mistake: an analogy to mothering drawn from metaxology would stand at a far remove from sentimental kitsch or a portrayal on the Hallmark channel. Metaxology does not float above the fray of daily life but, instead, arises from within it. With Mara, we may approach metaxology as a metaphysical reflection on the matrix of creation. Reflection on the logos of the metaxu cannot flee the flux of life but must account for it. Mara captures this: “Detritus accumulates, paths wind, mess multiplies, fluid oozes, chaos abounds. Life overflows. And the ultimate maker of it all—God, mother—lets.”

    The “let it be” of creation bespeaks risk and revelation. It is a risk to release another out into the world, a risk to give another berth to navigate the pitfalls and perils and joys of the world. Yet the “let it be” reveals something of the one who steps back to allow the other to step forward. Simeone Weil describing this letting go as “creative renunciation.” One renounces the pretense of control—as Mara recounts from her postpartum readings of Genesis 1—and discovers how fraught and fecund the act of creation is. Revealed through God’s creative act, the divine “let it be” that set all this is in motion, is a generosity we know as love. What Desmond describes as the Agapeic Origin creates and sustains what is other to the self, lets be what is other, for no ulterior motive other than the good of its being at all. Creation ex nihilo, reflected on within this matrix, transubstantiates into creation ex caritatis: creation from charity, from grace, from love.

    Let me reiterate my sense of gratitude to my old friend Mara and congratulate her on the birth of her child. In my mind’s eye, I can still remember our first dinner following Jeannine Hill-Fletcher’s seminar. The restaurant’s table became for us a metaxu where, between bites of pizza and pints of beer, a friendship was conceived. It is a friendship that has survived marriage and ordination, the conferral of degrees, and professional transplantations. It is my fervent hope that the road connecting Milwaukee to Chicago will become a metaxu where our old friendship is given renewed life and we can journey together as pilgrims in the between.

Response

Prayer in a Secular Age

This response reflects on several different modes of spiritual exercise in Ryan Duns’s Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age, focusing on prayer. Such spiritual exercise might act as an antidote to the radical individualism that Charles Taylor identifies as essential to the contemporary era of secularism. At the same time, it might intensify the efficacy of poetry, by breaking down barriers between us and transcendence, making us—to use William Desmond’s term in its proper sense—more porous to what is both within and beyond what we find in our everyday world.

In other words, Duns’s convincing case that poetry can offer a way through and even out of the secularity that Charles Taylor describes can be extended. I would like to suggest that a noble sequel to his volume would be a deeper and more applied investigation of how the explicitly religious practices of prayer can attune communities to the spiritual resonances of our metaxologically configured world. As readers of William Desmond will know, the metaxological has many different dimensions. In this short reflection I am drawing mainly on the insight that the metaxu is the in-between realm in which humans find themselves. We are, that is, born into a world that is full of meaning. That meaning is immanent, incarnate—it is here. However, its significance derives from the way that it indicates what is simultaneously beyond. Philosophy, poetry, art, prayer—all express in different and related ways the tension humans know as they encounter a world full of meaning that is both immanent and transcendent. While Duns focuses on poetry, which he engages philosophically via Taylor’s and Desmond’s work, the more obviously spiritual exercise of prayer might take us deeper into understanding what is at stake in Duns’s fine work.

As a precursor to this point, one should first dwell on what Duns has to say about spiritual exercises as such. The term “spiritual exercise” immediately brings to mind the Jesuit tradition of which Duns is a member. This, though, is not the focus of his book, which opens up poetry via philosophy. In this way, Duns makes way for a deeper contemporary awareness of transcendence as divine. This mindfulness could be engaged even more profoundly by developing what it means actively to pray. Duns indicates in earlier chapters that “to exercise” can mean “to vex” or “to exasperate,” and proposes that this is what the question of transcendence can do in our secular age. However, “exercise” in Duns’s work also draws on a second sense, which is more like a workout. We can exercise ourselves so as to see the world metaphysically, metaxologically—and this happens best through engaging with poetics, as Desmond discusses that mode. Poetics, then, need to be performed, or enacted, and in this way exercised. Poetics has both an active and a more passive dimension. We respond to the poetics of being when we actively express what we know through aesthetic happening. An even more existential mode of exercise occurs when one undertakes posthumous mind. The latter is a more ascetic exercise, undertaken when one is brought to the point of death, but then does not die. This can happen literally (that is, one can almost die but, having escaped death, experience life and the world in a richer way than previously possible); or one can undertake to meditate on the boundary between life and death, becoming as it were dead to one’s life, in order to renew it again. Desmond reminds us that Dostoevsky experienced the first kind of posthumous mind, and that the metaxological philosopher would do well to follow through what this means imaginatively, in order to find again the freshness of being.

The idea of spiritual exercise as a means toward poetic vision is not an old one. Nor is the notion that philosophy, considered as a way of life, is in fact a spiritual exercise. This is the main sense that Duns draws on, following Pierre Hadot’s exploration of the idea. Hadot points out that spiritual exercises have Stoic and Epicurean origins. For the ancient thinkers, philosophy was not merely an intellectual pursuit, but instead a way to live, through constant meditation and reflection. Ignatian spirituality is, in this respect, the continuation of a pagan philosophical tradition that knows nothing of the Christian vision of reality. And yet, there is something subtly yet substantially different in carrying out a spiritual exercise as a Christian who can see the world as created, redeemed, and groaning as it labours toward the final re-creation. Duns quotes Ignatius of Loyola, who thought of spiritual exercises as “every method ‘of examination of conscience, meditation, contemplation, vocal or mental prayer, and other spiritual activities . . . the name of spiritual exercises [is] given to any means of preparing and disposing our soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections and then, after their removal, or seeking and finding God’s will in the ordering of our life for the salvation of our soul’” (131). Christian saints, then, have performed all manner of spiritual exercises, according to their own disposition, cultural milieu, and life story. But every saint certainly did one thing quite well, which is to pray through Christ to the Trinitarian God. Each Christian saint has, in the depths of the heart, through spoken and written words, raised his soul to the heavens, while remaining on earth.

Duns’s book presents an initial way to tease out the porous boundary between poetry and prayer, or between art and religion, through the medium of philosophy. This can be explored still further by delving more explicitly into how a spiritual exercise can be applied within the contexts of varying degrees of spiritual awareness. After all, the problem of the so-called secular age is not that humans have become less spiritual, but that they seek to feed their spiritual longings with inferior repast. At least one dimension of that inadequacy is that individuals think themselves satisfied when they choose the most non-spiritual path that they can find. Opting for a modern, mechanistic worldview, they sap themselves of spiritual energies, considering themselves material cogs in an overwhelming machine. Another is when they opt for the mode of spiritual practice they most prefer rather than seeking and remaining open to practices that engage with truth that exceeds all human possibilities.

In considering this, it is helpful to focus on the boundary between poetry and prayer, which is a key theme in Desmond’s work. One finds an early form in Philosophy and Its Others, where prayer and song are intimately related to one another; then later throughout God and the Between, where Desmond’s cantos effectively collapse any distinction between poetry and prayer; and in Is There a Sabbath for Thought?, which explores the porous boundaries between art, religion, and philosophy. These are only three examples, since the theme of porosity has become increasingly prevalent in Desmond’s writings. In Is There a Sabbath for Thought?, Desmond makes the salient point that, whereas art and the religious can never be fully separated from one another, when art “substitutes for” and even “seeks to absorb all the power of the religious,” we end up with nothing absolute whatsoever.1 Duns by no means falls into this category of risk. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to underline the importance of maintaining the relationship between the religious and the aesthetic at every point along the way of understanding what is truly spiritual. In this respect, it might be helpful to adopt a broader focus for a moment on the issue at hand, by addressing how Desmond and Taylor differ in their understanding of how the individual self can be porous to divine intermediations.

Firstly, whereas Taylor thinks that porosity is a historically conditioned mode of relationship to the divine, Desmond thinks that humans are metaphysically porous to God, regardless of the particular historical point in time when they live. To elaborate, Taylor claims that in the premodern era, humans led a porous and enchanted existence, where there was no significant distance between them and the divine. Modernity ushered in an age of radical individualism, from which we have never recovered, such that we are now “buffered” rather than “porous” selves. Ours is a disenchanted world, which is the foundation for our secular age. Previously, not to believe in God was unimaginable, whereas now, belief in God is simply one option among many others. Desmond, on the other hand, claims that porosity is not a historically contingent state of affairs. Instead, humans are, by nature, porous. Metaphysically, we are open to the divine—it seeps through our pores, through everyday “aesthetic happenings” and through the more dramatic moments of “posthumous mind.” Aesthetic happening describes how humans are constantly affected by their sensed surroundings, which intimate the existence of a loving and incarnate Creator. Posthumous mind is the event where a human faces the imminent possibility of her own death, and becomes more fully aware of the intense significations of transcendence that are present in human experiences of the world. Aesthetic happening and posthumous mind both refer to the ways in which, for Desmond, porosity is the human capacity for receptivity to the gift of being—in its beauty as well as its harshness. A practiced—or exercised—attunement to being is fostered. It needs to be emphasised that—pace Taylor—this exercise is not specific to a particular historical time, but to the human condition.

This leads to the second underlying point concerning the relationship between Taylor and Desmond. Duns’s argument has the structure of a call from Taylor and then a response by Desmond. As the text bears out, this opens up a way to investigate William Desmond’s metaxological philosophy. It also offers readers as yet unfamiliar with Desmond a hook into his thought. However, I would contend that it is important to recognize that Desmond’s work is far more than a response to Taylor. In fact, in certain other key respects, his philosophy contests some of Taylor’s claims. One of these has already been addressed: porosity is metaphysical and not a marker of an historical past long gone and never to be retrieved. Another related claim also opposes Taylor’s view of the subject. That is, Taylor perhaps makes too much of the idea that contemporary society has successfully set up disbelief in the existence of God as a tenable option. Desmond’s God and the Between offers something more in this respect. It describes the contemporary terrain of varying modes of belief and disbelief such that the anguished cry of the one who claims, like the fool in the Psalms, that “there is no God” is itself a form of prayer. To name God at all is to assert that God still has some hold on our imagination—that when we protest his existence too much, we are in fact indicating a void that only God can fill. As such, any claim to disbelief in God as a denial of spirituality cannot ring quite true.

When all is said and done, God is not just one option as an object of belief. One’s stance on God is always the ultimate explanation for any belief whatsoever. He is the richest source of poetics. As the one who prays tries to unite herself with the living God, language approaches its limits. Thomas Aquinas’s realization that all that he had written about God was akin to “nothing”—like straw when seen in light of what he had known through ecstatic vision of the living God—is a kind of prayer. Could Thomas have prayed as he did—no doubt daily—if he had not meditated so deeply on hidden divine mysteries? Could Catherine of Siena or Teresa of Avila undergone such ecstasies if they had not practiced being in God’s divine presence? Meditating upon prayers of such saints who offer poetic language while being more than poets, would I think be a fitting avenue to explore in a future volume for our “secular age.”


  1. Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 164.

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Reply

    Response to Renee Kohler-Ryan

    I am especially indebted to Renee Kohler-Ryan. She is among the leading readers and expositors of Desmond’s work and she, along with Christopher Ben Simpson, has pioneered the efforts to explore the theological implications of metaxology. Kohler-Ryan discerns that there is yet another stage to my project, one that explores more fully the nature of a theological “way of life” animated by the practice of prayer.

    Part of learning to “pray in the between” entails accepting that one will undergo an ongoing conversion of mind and heart. Kohler-Ryan’s illuminating essay has provoked me into rethinking my interpretation of Desmond and Taylor on the nature of “porosity.” Taylor does, indeed, unspool a very long historical narrative recounting how the human has become disenchanted and thereby “buffered” from the divine. Desmond, by contrast, refuses to cede our metaphysical porosity to the divine. We may have become “clogged” and less able to savor the closeness of God, yet we remain nevertheless fundamentally open to the divine. I concur with Kohler-Ryan that, for Desmond, porosity is and remains “metaphysical and not a marker of an historical past long gone over and never to be retrieved.” In lieu of “disenchanted” Desmond speaks of being “bewitched” by the finite, a spell that blinds us to being’s overdeterminacy. In God and the Between, Desmond offers a meditative practice—“return to zero”—as one way of breaking this spell. In a manner akin to the Stoic praemeditatio malorum, Desmond guides readers to envision their own “coming to nothing.” Plunging readers into the cold nihil, he believes, can rekindle a sense of astonishment that anything is at all. Drinking from the wellspring of astonishment, being rocked back on our heels by thinking about the sheer gratuity of creation can, Desmond contends, unclog our porosity and renew our sense of being in congress with the Creative Other who creates not out of lack but of love. For Desmond, we arrive at this astonishment not through abstracted syllogisms but only through meditative practice or, as I approach it, spiritual exercise.

    My interpretation of Desmond and Taylor has been influenced by a paper that Desmond delivered in Rome in 2015. In this response to Taylor,1 Desmond describes Taylor’s project, in part, as offering a historical narrative of the self’s loss of porosity. Between the years 1500 and 2000, roughly, the self became buffered to the transcendent and lived within an increasingly “disenchanted” milieu. Yet, I wonder if Desmond overstates the case that while Taylor sees porosity as something lost and “never to be retrieved,” he, Desmond, preserves this openness. Desmond’s interpretation of his difference from Taylor seems too emphatic. I cannot believe that Taylor believes that we are, in fact, totally buffered from God. How could Taylor think that we had permanently lost our porosity if, on p. 755 of A Secular Age, he summons us to discover new paths to belief! Speaking only for myself, I think I allowed Desmond’s reading of Taylor to exercise too great an influence on my interpretation of their projects. It might be better and more faithful to both to see them as complementary: Taylor tells the big, big, big story of how we have come to see the world as we do (the history of our social imaginary) whereas Desmond provides the metaphysical anthropology that helps to make sense of the phenomena Taylor recounts. Rather than opposing narratives, we can see Taylor’s narrative phenomenology and Desmond’s metaphysical odyssey both contributing to a common project: identifying and understanding who the human subject is (metaphysics) and how the subject experiences itself and its world (phenomenology). Taylor offers a narrative of how we got here and how things look at the moment; Desmond suggests how we might go on along a new pathway.

    I mention this because Desmond’s metaphysics provides the thick and robust anthropology needed to negotiate the terrain of a secular age. It is an anthropology that can dialogue with and be made sense of in terms of philosophy and other disciplines but one that is infinitely open to theological reflection. Kohler-Ryan is correct to observe the importance of prayer in this regard. As a Christian, I am drawn to the “great prayers” in my tradition: Augustine and Aquinas, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Sienna, Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross. In their uniqueness, in their idiocy (let the metaxologically attuned reader hear), we sense the truth of John of the Cross’s observation made at the summit of Mount Carmel: “Here there is no longer any way because for the just man there is no law, he is a law unto himself.”2 I fervently hope to join their ranks . . . but I’m already a believer. As a priest, a theologian, and a seeker I cannot help but ask: how can I help others on this pilgrimage? What resources might facilitate others to strike out on this spiritual quest?

    My choice of poetry over prayer, at least in Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age, owes to my experiences as a teacher. Reading poetry with others, meditating on it with others, working together to allow poetry to reveal itself on its terms: poetry is the site of ascetic practice where our efforts to impose meaning are thwarted and we are forced to wait as it discloses itself. Poetry often catches readers up short and makes them step back from the frantic flow of the everyday and pause. Stepping back from the unthinking flow of routine is, to my mind, the first step in the spiritual pilgrimage. The step back from the known and familiar may expose the meager fare to which one has grown accustomed; the step back may offer a wider and more capacious view of the real; the step back may create the space necessary for a step forward in a new direction. My hope is to encourage others to take this step back because I am convinced that, attuned through the practice of metaxological metaphysics, new discoveries await.

    Renee Kohler-Ryan may have provided the goad to my next project: From Poetry to Poesis: Theological Transpositions. How can religious poetry serve as a metaxu where we discover ourselves being opened by the Word of God, heard through the power of the Spirit, who draws us into the heart of the Father? If this is the next work’s trajectory, it will be a project undertaken with an eye to the many exemplars—those already counted among the communion of saints, those who, like Renee, blessedly live among us now—who challenge us to risk naming, discerning, thinking about, and praying to the God revealed in the between.


    1. William Desmond, “The Porosity of Being: Toward a Catholic Agapeics. In Response to Charles Taylor,” in Renewing the Church in a Secular Age: Holistic Dialogue and Kenotic Vision, ed. Charles Taylor et al. (Washington, DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2016), 283–305; http://www.crvp.org/publications/Series-VIII/21-TEXT_FINAL_Aprov.pdf.

    2. St. John of the Cross, Selected Writings, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1987), 45.

Response

Formative Exercises for an Informative World

How Can Metaxology Shape Us before Filling Us?

I found Ryan Duns’s new book Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: Desmond and the Quest for God enjoyable on several levels. He shows great skill in writing—even singing at times—about a number of key ideas. He also adeptly exposits the meandering thinking of (especially) Charles Taylor and William Desmond and builds on their thought by suggesting new avenues and roads that we may follow today as we continue to wrestle with the question of God. The book also provided me the opportunity to reengage with figures who I have not read in a few years. I am nearing the end of writing a dissertation on French phenomenology, so my focus has largely been in that world, but during my master’s degree I enjoyed courses on Charles Taylor and Richard Kearney, and read figures like Caputo and Westphal. It was in my reading of Kearney that I first encountered Desmond’s work. His thinking, and style, like Kearney’s, really captivated me and my philosophical and theological thinking. My engagement with both Kearney and Desmond led to the opportunity to present a paper at Desmond’s retirement conference at KU Leuven in 2017, where I was graced with the chance to speak briefly with Desmond (and where he graciously critiqued some points in my paper . . .). Finally, Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age resonated with some reading that I have been doing on practice, liturgy, and formation. These themes have come up for me mainly in the works of James K. A. Smith, whose book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor Duns refers to. I’ll address the point of narrative/poetic style more briefly, before turning to the point on liturgy in a deeper and more prompting manner.

The style or form of Spiritual Exercises is what distinguishes it from other theological and philosophical texts, as much as does its illuminating content. In this way Duns follows his two main interlocutors, Taylor and Desmond. Both of these figures, as Duns acknowledges, use narrative and poetry to convey their philosophical points. Commenting on Taylor’s A Secular Age, Duns writes that “the text disorients in order to reorient” (7), and notes that the text is a story: “Taylor, then, does not tell a story but, by implicating and involving us in its telling, reveals our story” (5). Taylor’s style of argument is as important as its content, and, as Duns shows, the same is true for Desmond. He writes that “Desmond’s poetics does more than point or designate; it is revelatory and performs by permitting us to peer beneath the surface of ‘becoming’ to consider the dynamic process of ‘coming to be’” (129–30). A little later, Duns writes that “Desmond’s prose can shift and transform readers’ dispositions. . . . Metaxological poetics enacts a discursive performance aimed at arousing a sense of the metaxu’s dynamism and rhythm” (130). Simply put, for both Taylor and Desmond apodictic argumentation does not work because life is not that simple; and thus, their style is (part of) their argument.

I want to turn now, after this more general comment, to the meat of my response, namely, to an engagement with Duns on the topic of formation, especially as it relates to education and liturgy. I will do this in conversation with the work of Reformed philosopher and (public) theologian James K. A. Smith. While I was reading Duns’s Spiritual Exercises I was also reading Smith’s Cultural Liturgies trilogy.1 Formation is a main theme for both Duns and Smith, but one that I want to push Duns to expand on a bit further. The title of Duns’s book clearly does not conceal that formation is a central topic for him: “exercises” makes no attempt to hide this. And, with reference to Pierre Hadot’s work on ancient philosophy, he indicates that philosophy (and why not theology too) is—or should be, in its truest form—centred on practices that lead one to live differently, not just think differently. As such, throughout Spiritual Exercises we find Duns talking about formation and reformation in relation to information. He makes this direction clear in his introduction: “Desmond’s philosophy is best approached as a form of spiritual exercise aimed not so much at informing readers as forming them to perceive reality anew” (xxi). This was the aim of Jesus’s parables, which are “not meant to inform hearers but to form them as Kingdom-dwellers” (222). Duns finds this same impulse in the Angelic Doctor: “Aquinas sought less to inform his readers than to form them to perceive that the ‘crack’ in everything leads not to nihilistic despondency but opens outwards and upwards toward God” (194). So here we see Duns in line with a certain trajectory of philosophical and theological thinking. At the same time, however, I think that his work needs some clarification.

I have two overarching questions for Duns on this information/formation relation. The first of these questions regards the nature of these exercises: what is the role of the body in the practice of metaxology as spiritual exercise? Of course, there is the name: these are spiritual and not physical exercises. These two need not be separated—indeed, a strong Catholic theological anthropology should not separate the spiritual from the physical—and I am not suggesting that Duns completely (and banally) separates these two. However, I would like Duns to provide more clarity on the carnal component of these spiritual exercises. Duns discusses the notion that “new and innovative itineraries” (xviii) need to be embarked on to encounter God; indeed, he finds this to be A Secular Age’s “most provocative claim” (18). But what kind of paths and itineraries are these? Should we see a new path as an itinerarium mentis, such that one doesn’t need their feet to walk it, but only their (mind’s) eye to see it? Or are these fully embodied itineraries? I am reminded here of Emmanuel Falque’s petition that “the itinerary (Itinerarium) [Bonaventure] of humankind towards God is justified only if we dwell also on and in the state of earthly pilgrimage (status viae) that constitutes our pure and simple humanity (Aquinas).”2 Perhaps it is the case that, because these itineraries are “unprecedented,” there may be both spiritual/mental paths and spiritual/bodily paths. Which does Duns see metaxology promoting?

Looking again to Duns’s argument that “Desmond’s philosophy is best approached as a form of spiritual exercise aimed not so much at informing readers as forming them to perceive reality anew” (xxi), I wonder how he understands perception. Is it just a spiritual or transcendental perception, such that my eye and mind see the world differently? Or is it a holistic perception that derives from our fully-embodied being-in-the-world (Merleau-Ponty over Heidegger)? Duns discusses Husserl’s and Heidegger’s corrections to Descartes’s thinking about perception, emphasizing the sine qua non of the body in this. However, although Duns discusses Heidegger’s idea of “ready-to-hand” (zuhanden) (237–38), he does not acknowledge the critiques of Heidegger, namely, that Dasein is asexual and that, though objects may be “present-at-hand” (vorhanden) or “ready-to-hand” (zuhanden), Dasein has no hands. So, put in terms of the form/inform schema: is it just our mind that is being (re)formed, or is it our whole embodied existence that is being (re)formed? Here I think it is helpful to look at Duns’s section “The Orthotic Fourfold” (274). The “orthotic fourfold” contains the balanced pairs of orthodoxy-orthopraxy (right thinking-right acting; the “what poles”) and orthopathy-orthoaesthesis (right feeling-right perception; the “how poles”). The addition of orthopathy to the orthodoxy-orthopraxy relation was already a boon to theological thinking and praxis, but Duns’s addition of orthoaethesis further enriches our understanding here. As he writes, “we need to perceive rightly if we are to have any hope of responding well” to “the cry of the poor, the face of the widow, the knock of the stranger on the door” (277). But again, the question of “what kind of perception” comes to my mind: is it merely spiritual/transcendental, or is it fully embodied?

The section on the “orthotic fourfold” provides a nice segue into my second overarching question. Duns writes, responding to a passage in his homilist’s 2018 reading from Andrew Young’s An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, that “our eyes were opened to see the injustice of our world not simply as a source of social outrage but, with eyes liturgically trained and hearts opened, as a ‘crack’ through which grace could be seen” (277, emphasis mine). And in his discussion of the encounter of the Risen Christ with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Duns writes that they were overwhelmed with evidence (266), but that what finally caused them to recognize their companion as the Risen Christ was “in the liturgical gesture of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving” (278, emphasis mine). I am interested in this “liturgical training” and think (at least hope) that it figures importantly in Duns’s overall aims. James Smith’s ideas connect well on this point.

Volume 1 of Smith’s series, Desiring the Kingdom, focusses predominantly on education and on the role of liturgy in it. Smith writes that “education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people.”3 Formation is of course intimately connected with rituals and embodied practices, which is what links education to liturgy. Liturgies “shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love;4 liturgies are, Smith writes later, “rituals of ultimate concern.”5 Taking these points from Smith on education and liturgy, I want to engage Duns on his understanding of education and liturgy, and how he lives them out. As Duns is an educator—a Jesuit educator no less!—his livelihood and vocation orbits around the call to provide students with an education. Educating people, of course, must include information (objective facts about biology, history, or theological doctrine), so much of education is indeed tied up with informing students. But education, from the Latin educere, is also about leading students towards something, as Duns conveys (268). For example, leading them to become ennobled and well-rounded individuals that will ultimately create more just communities and a more sustainable world. Education is therefore about forming students—it is about shaping them to be a particular type of person, which is a belief that Smith and Duns share.6

But how does Duns envision the relation of formation and information in metaxological exercises being taught to students, whether formal students in a university setting, academics reading his book, or the layperson who has a penchant for heady philosophical and theological texts? Obviously, Duns’s home institution of Marquette is Jesuit, and so (one imagines) the educational pursuits and teaching there emerges out of and is guided by a Catholic ethos. So, the “liturgical training” there would come from the (Jesuit) Catholic tradition and (presumably) be part of the air the students breathe on campus—what bleeds through the cracks in Marquette Hall and Johnston Hall. But what of students who might be taught or read this text in a setting that is guided by an ethos (or vision of the good) that is aimed at consumeristic ends? Where students are shaped to become cogs in a capitalistic machine that buys into the progressivist narrative of “more, better, faster”?7 When these individuals are shaped by different liturgies, can Duns’s book, and the important and helpful claims that he makes in it, reach them? Can these spiritual practices still be effective if they are unhinged from the liturgical practices that fully motivate them (and Duns, Taylor, and Desmond)? And if so, how? From all these interrelated thoughts and questions, I am hoping that Duns is able to see the thrust of what I am trying to get at, and so am hoping that he can speak more to how he sees these metaxological exercises engaging the whole of what it means to be an embodied, liturgical creature.


  1. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Cultural Liturgies 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, Cultural Liturgies 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013); Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, Cultural Liturgies 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).

  2. Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist, trans. George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 223.

  3. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 26.

  4. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25.

  5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 86.

  6. Unfortunately, it seems that most universities today only care about informing students. Despite this, there is a formation that is taking place, unacknowledged as it may be. This oversight points, I think, to the dire state of education in the Western world.

  7. I am assuming (and hoping) that this mantra is not Marquette’s.

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Reply

    Response to Mark Novak

    Like Mark Novak, I was privileged to attend William Desmond’s “retirement” party in 2017. I say “retirement” because Desmond is anything but superannuated. If anything, the pace of his productivity has only increased in the intervening years and he has continued to teach in the United States, most recently at Villanova. In 2017, I was on the cusp of beginning my own dissertation and was happy to attend Mark’s paper presentation. I was eager to hear how another scholar would engage Desmond and Kearney and was relieved to discover that, even if I were on a wholly wrong track, at least I had company. I hasten to add that I do not think Mark was, or is, on any such wrong track! Indeed, I’m glad of his company as a fellow traveler along these routes.

    Mark poses two incisive questions and I want to give an answer to each. First: What is the role of the body in the practice of metaxology as spiritual exercise? To begin an answer, I would say that metaxology does not permit any excarnate exercise, spiritual or otherwise. Metaxology arises from our being amid (meta) finite beings that we sensibly encounter, being that we observe coming into being and passing out of existence, and metaxology directs our attention to the endowing source beyond (meta) finite being. It is true that I did not provide either a metaphysical or phenomenological account of “the body.” Nor was it my intent to give thoroughgoing analysis of Dasein. My discussion of Heidegger’s sense of zuhandenheit (ready-to-hand) meant only to flag the way the human subject—carnal, incarnate, embodied—must negotiate his or her physical context. Perhaps I could have made it clearer that, at the end of the day, I ascribe to the scholastic adage: nihil est in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu (there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses).

    In writing this work, I tried to convey a sense of a journey or pilgrimage. I am a son of Ignatius who, in his Autobiography, referred to himself as “the pilgrim.” Undertaking an exercise such as Desmond’s “return to zero,” a spiritual exercise wherein one imaginatively stands beneath the wings of the Angel of Death and lets oneself be shorn of everything finite, resists being an exclusively intra-mental affair. For Desmond, the experience of loss and grief (C. S. Lewis described grief as feeling like fear, hardly an excarnate sensation) can give way to a resurrected sense of astonishment that “rocks one back” and overwhelms the practitioner.

    What metaxology provides is a way of discerning within the finite hints and glimpses of the infinite. In my more Kearney-like moments, the carnality of experiences is patent: “the cry of the poor” is heard with ears, the “face of the widow” is seen with eyes, the cup of water extended to the thirsting stranger is extended with a hand. The metaxological imagination is not a faculty that stands at a remove from the muck and mire of the everyday. On the contrary, the metaxological imagination moves freely amid the created realm in search of its concealed depths and undisclosed heights. Unlike the tourist who sets out on a pre-packaged trip with a clear itinerary, the pilgrim ventures forth because she experiences herself called to find her place in a larger narrative. As Rilke’s sonnet entitled “Archaic Torso of Apollo” famously concludes: You must change your life. To modify an adage I use with my students: a spiritual exercise without embodied consequences (transformations to the way you live your life) is an inconsequential spiritual exercise.

    Mark’s second question transposes his first query into the realm of liturgy. I should not at any point be taken to denigrate the importance of education as informative. Content must be conveyed, after all. My worry is that education can be reduced to a briefcase-and-box model wherein the instructor deposits gobbets of information into the students’ empty boxes. I’ve been reading Peter Sloterdijk of late, so let me crib from his book1 to say that I think the theological classroom can serve as a lab where students can explore an ascetology (study of ascetic practices) against an explicitly eschatological horizon (what is to come in fullness of God’s kingdom is already but not yet fully present). In other words, one can invite students to consider, indwell, and take part in practices in such a way that they can be informative (students learn-by-undertaking the exercises) and, perhaps, spiritually formative (students discover the practices as providing an orientation to their lives or facilitating the integration of their lives). Biologists and chemists have labs, business students have internships, so I see no reason why philosophy and theology students can’t have opportunities for experiential learning.

    Bear in mind, I’m not advocating coercive indoctrination: I respect my students, and the work of the Spirit, too much to manipulate them. That does not mean, however, that I shy away from incorporating opportunities for students to immerse themselves in certain practice like contemplation. Indeed, I have begun teaching courses where we deliberately (and with full foreknowledge by the students) cultivate a contemplative practice and explore how liturgical experiences can contribute to how we perceive and engage the world. One technique I have employed is that of the contemplative beholding of an artwork.2 And, in class, we have a ritual for entering into fifteen minutes of silence. I am acutely aware that many of the students I teach have been formed within a neo-liberal system that encourages them to pursue a vision of “the Good” that stands at odds with much of the Gospel. For my part, I never find it efficacious to launch a full-scale assault on their purported “Good.” Instead of confrontation, I prefer a subtler and more circuitous route that passes through the terrain of experiential learning. Thus I invite them to develop a contemplative practice, to sojourn within the inner recesses of the heart, and to open themselves to the silence. This formative practice is complemented with the informative content of the course. The result, in many cases, is that the students develop a familiarity with theological concepts and ideas that help them to name and identify the nature of their experiences. One semester my most enthusiastic student was a non-observant Muslim who, while not finding himself drawn into deeper communion with God, registered his appreciation for the chance to embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage in the company of other pilgrims who had a shared language.

    For Johann Baptist Metz, the shortest definition of religion is interruption.3 Metaxological exercises can serve as occasions for interruption, occasions for pausing and opening oneself to the world in a new way. The way we hear, taste, touch, smell, and feel can, through practice, be attuned to the way the eternal announces itself through the temporal. A theological ascetology, one informed by divine revelation and formed through liturgical practice, offers a way of living already, but not yet fully, as a denizen of God’s kingdom. To my mind, it the embodied witness of such “kingdom dwellers” that will provide a viable and compelling alternative to those persons formed by technocratic liturgies that reduce people to moving parts within an impersonal mechanism.

    One area of further development would be, as Mark intuits, the relationship between metaxological pedagogy (education) and mystagogy (a gracious induction into the heart of the Trinity). How might one’s carnal self, orthoaesthetically attuned by divine grace, recognize and respond to the call to become a member of Christ’s Body? On this side of eternity, metaxological practices might not make us perfect but, through the work of the Spirit, they can draw us along a progressively perfective pathway that gives us a share in God’s own life.


    1. Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, trans. Wieland Hoban (Malden, MA: Polity, 2013).

    2. https://www.marquette.edu/haggerty-museum/.

    3. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. James Matthew Ashley (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Herder & Herder, 2007), 171.

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