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.
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.”
Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 164.↩
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.
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).↩
Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist, trans. George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 223.↩
Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 26.↩
Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25.↩
Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 86.↩
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.↩
I am assuming (and hoping) that this mantra is not Marquette’s.↩
On Ethos, Phenomenology and Spiritual Expression
Some Questions for Father Duns
I was recently talking with a friend about what, exactly, it means to have a “relationship with God.” My friend and I grew up in a deeply Christianized environment: regular church attendance, catechism classes, youth groups and Christian grade school, high school, university and graduate work combined to give us a deep immersion in Christianity as both a doctrinal system and a way of life. My friend now teaches in a deeply secular setting in one of the largest cities in North America and is struggling (as so many of us are) to understand how the Christianity we grew up with fits with the lives we are living in a secular and largely post-Christian environment (this is, perhaps, even more true in Canada, where we reside, than in the United States, where Christianity—at least of a certain stripe—remains an active political entity in a way that it just isn’t in Canada any longer). During our conversation, I found myself drawing on Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age several times to try to articulate both why it is reasonable to continue to use religious language in a secular age, and how that language can remain meaningful. I can think of few higher compliments to pay to a book like this than to say that I found it quite helpful during that conversation, and I imagine I will find it quite helpful in the many similar conversations to that I expect to have in the future (with this friend, and with many others).
But I also think it isn’t a coincidence that the book was helpful in a conversation between white people who grew up Christian. This leads me to my first question for Fr. Duns: to what ethos does metaxology help us rightly attune? Following Desmond, Duns speaks of a “primal ethos” that is porous to the transcendent. This “primal ethos” seems to serve primarily a methodological function: it is a “metaphysical” claim, meant to indicate why there is something at all, and not an ontological claim referring to any “given being as immanent” (69). Because Duns claims that the difference between ontology and metaphysics is that the former offers an answer to the question of being that is always situated in being, while the latter is “a method of reflection leading us along the road as we plumb the question of being” (69), we must take metaphysics (and so the “primal ethos,” as a metaphysical claim) to be a method rather than a content.
As such, an ethos—qua metaphysical claim—provides an account of how we make sense of the world that is necessarily opened on to the transcendent. And Duns uses Taylor’s work to establish that secularity offers us a practical account of how we make sense of the world (a “social imaginary”) that is not open to the transcendent. This is problematic because the “primal ethos,” even of secularity, is (or must be?) “cracked” in a way that shows its openness on to the transcendent. But, to return to my question, what exactly is this “primal ethos” that is opened on to the transcendent? Is the claim that any account of our relation to the world must be open to the transcendent, or simply that the ethos of secularity itself, despite its claims to the contrary, is, in actuality, opened on to the transcendent? The former is the stronger philosophical claim, but “stronger” in a way that Duns is trying to distance himself from. The latter claim is therefore a better fit, I think, for what Duns wants to argue—but then I’m left to wonder whether we discover an openness to the transcendent within secularity only because the secular grew out of conditions that were themselves thoroughly religious, even Christian. Are the “cracks” found within the primal ethos necessary (either to any “primal ethos” or to that of the secular), or simply the result of a history that secularity arose out of, but which it is (at least according to some) trying to overcome? Are the cracks windows on to the Way Things Really Are (i.e., opened on to the Transcendent), or are they simply the results of a (perhaps faulty) foundation that secularists are trying to patch up?
This is where I find Duns’s more explicit turn to Christianity both helpful and potentially harmful. It is helpful as opening a way for people who are already Christian (at least in ethos) to find a place for their Christianity within secularity. But it is potentially harmful insofar as it threatens to lose all those secular readers who do not identify with the Christian tradition and do not already have that as their “primal ethos.” Because if “it is hard to imagine that Desmond’s understanding of the primal ethos could have come from anywhere other than Christianity” (250), then I’m not sure it’s fair to call it the “primal ethos” of secularity.
This, in turn, raises other methodological considerations: perhaps the “return to zero” only works to “recast our lives” (152) if those lives are already set in a Christianized ethos that may or may not be the ethos of secularity itself (if there is such a thing). So, while I (and perhaps my friend) may find such an ascetic discipline spiritually transformative, will his colleagues (secular, Buddhist, or New Age)? In this regard, it may not be a coincidence that the book takes us on a journey from Quebec to Ireland (both historically Catholic societies in ways that continue to shape and impact those societies today) and not, say, from Toronto to Turkey or Chicago to China. Have we, in fact, uncovered an opening on to the Transcendent in a way that could be meaningful to various ethe, or is this simply the recovery of an implicit Christian foundation buried within the secular ethos? Would the staunch secularist—or the Buddhist or the Hindu—be convinced by the results of this journey?
And if we are simply recovering an implicit Christian ethos underlying the secular ethos, then we are free to wonder about the relationship between Christianity and secularism. For there is the question, not simply of seeing the cracks that open us on to the transcendent, but also of responding to those cracks. Atheistic secularists might acknowledge this Christian foundation of secularism and then choose to reject it—to patch up the cracks—rather than revel in them or celebrate them. And philosophers of “weak” religion like Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo might argue that the “proper” response to these openings on to transcendence is for Christianity to spend itself down to nothing, to increasingly give up its traditional trappings (e.g., doctrines of the Trinity and of the incarnation, rituals like Mass or Communion, etc.) and lose itself kenotically in a secular ethos.1 For some Christians these responses are anathema: secularity is the enemy that the religious must combat, not the telos for which Christianity strives.
Duns casts Desmond and Taylor in this latter camp. One can certainly understand why the secular and the religious are often pitted as foes rather than as friends: if the “religious” or the “sacred” are meant to indicate a separate and “special” sphere that is distinct from the “everyday” or “quotidian,” then making everything religious means nothing is: nothing is special if everything is special. But this latter view is precisely, I think, what Duns is pushing us to move beyond. The Transcendent does not name a “what” (a phenomenon) but a “how” (phenomenality; a metaphysical approach; etc.). As such, it cannot be easily and neatly separated from other, non-transcendent phenomena. By equating the transcendent with the Christian God, Duns opens the door to thinking of God, not simply as a distinct “what” to be encountered, but a “how,” a means of encountering the world differently (262). I admit that I wonder whether this point doesn’t risk being lost through the easy equation of the metaphysical transcendent with the Christian God: if the Transcendent is not a “what” but a “how,” then how can we so confidently give it a singular name (God) that ties it specifically to an historical, concrete “what” (the person of Jesus of Nazareth, understood as the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, as these terms have been defined through the tradition of Christian orthodoxy)? Does this not risk arresting the flow and the flux, by fixing the Transcendent too tightly, not only to one historical understanding of the Transcendent, but to a particular understanding that tends to lean heavily (for better or worse) on an understanding of the Transcendent as an existing Person, which is therefore a substantial thing?
In response to this, I wonder whether “transcendental” might not be better language to use than Transcendent, especially if used with a phenomenological flavour. I broach here the question of the relationship between Duns’s work (and Desmond’s work) and phenomenology. For if we shift the focus from the transcendent to the transcendental, this might then shift the religious focus from God-talk (theology) to spirituality, as the transcendental condition by which people engage the world as meaningful.2 This, of course, moves beyond Duns’s own interest in the relation between philosophy and theology, but I think it’s pertinent to his project for two reasons. First, for all that the term “spiritual” is used in the book in important ways (e.g., “spiritual exercise”), it is not clear how, precisely, the term functions there. It seems to work mainly in relation to how a self engages the world (e.g., “spiritual exercises” are “voluntary, personal practices intended to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self”; 132). Such usage is consistent with phenomenological usage, but seemingly at odds with most “Christian” uses of the term today, which remain individual and personal, but invoke a dualistic other-worldliness that tends to see the “spiritual” as at odds with the “material” or with the “world,” and so re-entrenches a particular understanding of the relationship between the religious (as “spiritual”) as distinct from the secular (as “worldly”).
Secondly, the question of spirituality, understood phenomenologically, reinforces Duns’s invocation of orthoaesthesis (or right perception). The inclusion of orthoaesthesis alongside orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy strikes me as potentially quite helpful and illuminating for Christian thought. However, I have a question to raise regarding its use here: what is the normativity at work in the claim to “right” perception? The book suggests that we are “rightly attuned” to an ethos only when we are able to perceive God/the transcendent (potentially) breaking through in every moment. This seems to be a question of spirituality, but precisely, it seems, of being attuned to the “right” spirit (the “Christian” “open” spiritual and metaphysical approach, rather than the secular “closed” one) so that we are formed to live “rightly” in the world. For Husserl, right perception has to do with optimality and with “home”:3 our perception is always geared into4 the actual world we live in, a world that is material-spiritual,5 not in the sense of being dualistic (including both material and spiritual as complementary parts) but in the sense of being thoroughly expressive of a deeper unity of sense.6 This unity of sense is generated within our “homeworld,” which is the normative way in which I always experience the world in this way rather than that way. Because this normativity is necessarily spiritually grounded—as all perception and all normativity are—“right perception” is not about perceiving the world “correctly” (i.e., about seeing things as they Actually Are), but about the alignment of sense between person and world: does the person “make sense” of the world in the way that their world calls them to make sense of it?
But such an account of normativity frees us to ask whether the secular person is not therefore “rightly attuned” to the (secular) world when they refuse to acknowledge the transcendent, or whether the rampant consumerist is “rightly attuned” to the (consumerist) world when they treat everything as a commodity. I worry that Duns’s “right perception” could be taken as being more about content (privileging one account of the world over another) than about consistency or coherence (if one is going to be Christian, then one should do everything, and not simply some things, “Christianly”). Duns, to his credit, tries to avoid this content-based normativity, distinguishing orthodoxy and orthopraxy as being matters of “what” or of content (“what we believe or what we do”; 277), while orthopathy and orthoaesthesis are matters of “how” (“how we perceive or how we are affected by it”; 277). But I admit that I found that way of distinguishing the four to be seemingly arbitrary, or at least not always clear: what makes it “right perception” if not that it perceives the “right things” (i.e., the things that I ought to perceive, like the openings on to the Transcendent that are present in the world)? I know that Duns wants to say that it isn’t about seeing a different world, but seeing the world differently, but how are we to take this, if not simply as saying “to see the world according to the Christian ethos rather than the secular one”? And if that is what is meant, that seems very much like the “how” question is being reduced normatively to a “what” question. I would love to hear a bit more from Fr. Duns about this four-fold, and about what a rightness of process (of “how”) means and looks like.
Vattimo makes this argument in After Christianity, trans. Luca D’Isanto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).↩
I begin to look at this question of “phenomenological spiritualty” in “Phenomenological Spirituality and its Relationship to Religion,” Forum Philosophicum: International Journal for Philosophy 25.15 (Spring 2020) 53–70; “Spiritual Life and Cultural Discernment: Renewing Spirituality through Henry,” in The Practical Philosophy of Michel Henry, ed. Brian Harding and Michael R. Kelly (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2021); and “What Counts as a Religious Experience? Phenomenology, Spirituality and the Question of Religion,” Open Theology 4 (2018) 292–307.↩
For more on optimality in Husserl, cf. Anthony J. Steinbock, Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), 1995.↩
The language of “gearing-into” is taken from Merleau-Ponty’s work on expression; cf. Donald A. Landes, Merleau-Ponty and the Paradoxes of Expression (London: Bloomsbury Academic), 2013.↩
For more on the “material-spiritual” in Husserl, cf. Husserl, Ideas II, 250n1; I explore this in more detail in “Spiritual Expression and the Promise of Phenomenology,” in The Subject(s) of Phenomenology: New Approaches to Husserl, ed. Iulian Apostelescu et al., 245–69 (New York: Springer, 2020).↩
Cf. Sara Heinämaa, “Embodiment and Expressivity in Husserl’s Phenomenology: From Logical Investigations to Cartesian Meditations,” SATS: Northern European Journal of Philosophy 11 (2010) 1–15.↩
Speaking of God
Philosophy and Theology Face to Face
It is a pleasure to be invited to discuss Ryan Duns’s profound engagement with the work of William Desmond. This book is transformative for our understanding of Desmond’s work, or at least that was my experience of it. The nature of Desmond’s prose, which resists easy categorization in terms of philosophical styles, is shown here to be operative in the manner in which the Irish philosopher coaxes his readers to think through their placement in the “between” within a secular age. My questions or responses are rooted in an uneasiness at the manner in which Duns understands the relation of philosophy and theology both in Desmond’s work and more generally. It is an issue which is difficult and my concerns here are expressed as probings in the hope of thinking further about this issue.
Theology is, as much as philosophy, a way of life, Duns affirms (281–82), but while they both may deal with similar content, they deal with that content differently. It is fruitful to state, as Duns does (282), that if theology is faith seeking understanding, then philosophy is understanding seeking faith, as long as we are clear that faith does not mean the same in both instances. Theologically, faith is a belief in the God of the scriptures; philosophically, I would suggest, faith is what Paul Ricoeur terms a “second naivety” and Desmond “an innocence regained,” a living post-critically with trust in the intelligibility and purpose of things calling attention to the everyday occurrences of the transcendent, which transcends any specific (confessional) faiths.
The title of the final chapter of Spiritual Exercises, “Epiphanic Attunement,” recalls Heidegger’s fundamental moods (Grundstimmung) and his account of attunement/state of mind (Befindlichkeit). An epiphanic attunement is a being-affected by a sudden, surprising appearance, finding oneself before a revelation, which appears of itself, surprising the self’s expectations and understanding. There is a sense, however, that Duns hesitates to fully press through with this phenomenon. The collapse of sense, he states, “cannot be total” as a total collapse would mean death (239). This is true if we understand the collapse in question along the model of an organism. But when Heidegger speaks of anxiety (Angst), for example, he is speaking not of organ failure but of the failure of meaning, in what he calls the “totality of relevance (Bewandtnisganzheit)” or world. This is where Heidegger challenges Husserl’s—but also Duns’s—account of orthoaesthesis (right perception). “Not every breakdown is pathological and, in fact, some are salutary breakthroughs” (242). Indeed, as Duns sees it, for Desmond the breakdown is theological (240). The breakdown is certainly understood in an Augustinian frame by Desmond, as a descent leading to an ascent, but that ascent is not necessarily correct, i.e., not necessarily directed in a straight line (Latin, com-regere; Greek, ortho-) towards its object. On Heideggerian grounds, but I suspect these dovetail with Desmond’s thinking too, the opposition of pathological and salutary seems overdrawn. The epiphanic attunement can be deeply pathological in letting worlds break down to reveal world as such.
I raise this issue to situate my question concerning the relation of philosophy and religion and philosophy and theology as Duns articulates it. Duns rightly highlights Desmond’s understand of the religiosity of being. But what do we mean by religion here? Duns proffers the etymological root in religare, to bind (281). There is an older etymology (found already in Cicero), tracing “religion” to relegere “to gather, to collect.” The linguist Emile Benveniste links the word religion to the latter derivation and understands is as rooted in the phrase religio est meaning to have a scruple. He infers the root meaning to be “to re-collect, to gather oneself again.” Religion in this understanding is a fundamental reticence, an attitude of re-collecting oneself, of curbing one’s action in the face of—and for the sake of—the sacred. Understood in Heideggerian terms, this means that religion begins in a fundamental diffidence (Scheue), a stepping back before that which defies all use, all understanding. My point here is that in such a mood, it is difficult to know what is the right feeling, the right practice, the right perception, the right doctrine. The Ancient Roman response (which has echoes in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity) was to reify ritual to a scrupulous level of correctness. But if we understand the re-collecting action in terms of—again to speak with Heidegger—truth (aletheia) not correctness, then this would suggest that at the core of religion is a certain awe transcending the worlds, including religious worlds (but not the religiosity of world) in which we happen to find ourselves.
Whether philosophically or theologically, when we speak of God we don’t know what we are saying. Duns reiterates Augustine: Si comprehendis non est deus (210). There are issues here internal to theology, which are played out, for example, in the dialectic of the via negativa and the positive way. In any case, a theology is committed to a confessionally specific account of God. In the relation of theology with philosophy, we know that the split between them originated in the thirteenth century and centred around the question of double truth, where the philosophical claim to a way to truth transcending confessional commitments was intertwined with the development of an account of the duplex ordo (to which Duns alludes, 282) of the natural and the supernatural (245–46). Desmond, as Duns makes clear, is attempting to move beyond such a separation, by recognizing once more the supernatural as a dimension of the natural—as creation and as imbued with a history of salvation. But the world of specific articulations of that relation—whether Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or whatever—can never be the last word philosophically. In that sense when Duns writes that “it is hard to imagine Desmond’s understanding of the primal ethos could have come from anywhere other than Christianity” (250), then I would want to clarify: as a philosopher Desmond like any other, comes from a certain heritage and thinks from that heritage, so yes, his articulation of a primal ethos is imbued with Christianity. But a Hindu or Muslim “Desmond” is also conceivable, and the issue is not just between Athens and Jerusalem but also between Athens and Mecca and Bodh Gaya, etc. The philosopher leaves the primal ethos—as indeed Desmond in real terms left his native Cork—to venture beyond it, while tracing the universal in the specific. But the specificity of that primal ethos can never have philosophical primacy.
There is something dangerous in talking about God, hence the importance of prayer, which Duns rightly and eloquently emphasises. In discussing the beauty of mathematical connections, Desmond speaks of the “celebrating attunement to the sublime beauty of the between” as “on the verge of offering its prayer to the unknown creator.” Later he goes on to say that “prayer would be the highest form of listening speech. . . . Prayer would be idiotic community with God.” The conditional clause here speaks to a powerlessness of the human being to achieve this community or even to know fully that it has been achieved. This whole discussion is reminiscent of Simone Weil (to whose account of attention and prayer Duns refers [136–37]), who remarks that “God ought not to be put in the dative.” In other words, prayer is not even speaking to God, but God speaking through the praying self. The key to this for Weil—and I think Desmond’s thought works in this direction too—is attention. According to Weil, in attention the I disappears, a disappearance which is required of me. In other words, the I gives itself over to what Weil calls “grace.” Grace is not generally Desmond’s word. He speaks rather of gift. But in speaking of “godsend” he says of it that it is “a reversal of autonomy. . . . We are receivers of a sending.” And while not named, grace seems implicit in a sentence such as: “we are offered an absolving release, hard to name, even as one feels the lifting of constraint, and it is all but nothing; offered in an instance, one is placed in its ‘presence,’ and then it is gone, or else we are distracted back to our familiar selves.” In addressing prayer here, Desmond is taking issue with an understanding of autonomy as absolute self-determinacy. As with Augustine, for whom grace is unearned to the extent that the very turn to divine grace is itself a gift of grace, for Desmond, autonomy needs to pay heed, pay attention, to that which gives the possibility of autonomy. However, when Duns states that “to senses opened and attuned by grace, they [the logos of the metaxu and the Logos of Christology] are the same” (285–86), much hangs on what is understood by “the same.” If it means that both are from different beginnings placing themselves in the porous space where differences mingle and cross over (divine/human, spirt/matter, eternity/temporality), then I have no problem with this statement. But if it means in effect something similar to Justin Martyr who claimed that Plato was transmitting the thought of Moses from the Semitic to the Gentile world and that all philosophy could be united in Christ, this begins to sound more like the collapsing of the distinction of philosophy and theology, indeed to the point of that Duns claims a priority of religion over philosophy (247).
“An idea of religious provenance becomes the occasion of a more radical philosophical reconsideration,” Desmond states. In following Duns and understanding Desmond’s philosophy as a spiritual exercise, the question remains as to what characterises a philosophical spiritual exercise. The clue in the sentence quoted above is in the repetition of the religious (or artistic, or whatever else is the source of what is to be thought) and the radicality of the consideration. Desmond is hinting that philosophy is always poor, always needy, like a magpie searching after shiny things. The challenge philosophically—and this is where the spiritual exercise is necessary—is to fully acknowledge that neediness without responding to it with an erotic desire for self-fulfilment. In other words, this is spiritual journey from the erotic to the agapeic. However, this is not a journey without remainder: the erotic remains operative throughout, but the philosophical desire for truth as self-fulfilment needs to be resisted and what Duns shows is the way in which the very style and rhetoric of his writing testify to Desmond’s exercise of such a resistance. This resistance is itself a response, a response to what is more primordial than the autonomy of the self. But the philosophical reconsideration of that prior initiation is more radical than the religious because it reflects it in its possibility not its actuality (following Marion’s manner of distinguishing the philosophical from the theological). This is not to make any claim as to the priority of possibility over actuality, but simply that the actuality of Christ needs to be worked through philosophically as a possibility of being, whereby we can think the divine again, beyond the limits of religion and theology.
To briefly conclude. Desmond states: “Reverence points to a source deeper than determinate religion, philosophy and science.” As I understand this statement, he is saying that there is a turning towards origins that is one of awe and recognition of what is greater than ourselves, which the religious, scientific and philosophical vocations all share. In responding to the Secular Age, it seems to me, these three different modes of being reverent each require their own spiritual exercises allowing them to relate in their different ways to a common source. That at least is where I ended after accompanying Duns as far as I could through the many ways and byways of Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age.
The Self in Flux
A Commentary on Fr. Ryan Duns’s Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age
In his book, Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: Desmond and the Quest for God, Fr. Ryan Duns develops a project advocating for the study of metaphysics as a spiritual exercise. Fr. Duns couples Charles Taylor’s account of the quest for meaning in a secular age with William Desmond’s metaxology, which is a metaphysical system that Duns expounds upon in order to provide the roadmap for that quest. Throughout, Fr. Duns discusses the self, ethics, and theology, in addition to metaphysics. However, one theme that I believe merits discussion in tandem with these others is the theme of narrative. Taylor sees the self as a narrative entity;1 moreover, quests are also inherently narrative.2 In this commentary, I will contend that the concept of narrative enriches the view of the self, and of self-transcendence, that Fr. Duns offers. Moreover, I will make explicit some other insights on the self that are latent in Fr. Duns’s work, particularly the connection between the self and relationships.
II. Desmond, Metaphysics, and Selfhood
One popular topic in contemporary philosophy is a discussion of the self. Such discussions range from trying to identify the nature of the true self, to trying to pin down a stable self-conception that can explain identity across time.3 However, a theme that emerges in Fr. Duns’s work is that the self is embedded in the flux of reality. Moreover, there are ways to develop this self, such that a person may attain a higher level of flourishing. That development is at least part, I think, of the purpose of Fr. Duns’s project.
This development of the self corresponds to the three phases of metaxological metaphysics. Fr. Duns discusses the three modes of metaphysics: determinacy, indeterminacy, and overdeterminacy (107). I would like to suggest that the self follows a similar pattern; youth and adolescence are full of wonder and self-discovery, which often accompanies a determinacy about who one is. In young adulthood, the quest for certainty and security undermines this determinacy, leading perhaps to a complete crisis in the self, where the sense of who one is becomes lost or eroded. Lastly, this crisis resolves in overdeterminacy. The initial astonishment of being, or of being-me, in this case, emerges only through self-transcendence, as we will see momentarily.
Perhaps a more detailed example of the connection between these three phases and the self would be that of the overenthusiastic new philosophy graduate student: they are absolutely certain that academia is the world for them, they are set completely on the path towards professorship, and they are overawed with wonder and astonishment at the discipline that they have entered. This is an apt example, for Fr. Duns writes, “The philosophical life cannot . . . seek to avoid personal upheaval and reorientation as one embarks on this recovery of the true self. No exercise promises immediate results, and the philosopher will often find herself in an ambiguous place, unsure of whether she is closer to the end or the beginning, nearer to captivity or to freedom” (143). We see the stages of this process of self-discovery in the untainted new student. Consider how, next, the self moves into indeterminacy, as the graduate student discovers the nearly hopeless job market prospects that await them, forays unsuccessfully into the realm of publishing, and perhaps even begins to fear that academia is the field least suited to their temperament. The impact upon their sense of self can be enormous in this case; the prior determinacy has given way to a complete lack of determinacy. Especially if the student has been determined upon the path of academia and philosophy for many years, they may not know who they are apart from this path. Lastly, this conflict is resolved when there is some restoration or return to original wonder: either renewed wonder in philosophy, or in some other pursuit that they have come to appreciate. This wonder may be more nuanced; like the infant who learns that fascinating door-hinges pinch, the mature graduate student has wonder that is tempered with experience. And with this regained determinacy comes a more developed sense of self: a self that can exist outside of philosophy, and that is shown to be fluid and flexible.
With the transition from determinacy to overdeterminacy, we see a self in the metaxu. Either extreme leads to either deluded self-certainty or despairing loss of self. In the middle ground, however, the self appears no longer static nor upon the brink of decimation. In the metaxu, the self is found to be capable of change and adaptation. This only happens, though, when one’s fixation on the self dissipates. In trying to pin it down, we lose the true sense of self as becoming, of self in flux. Like sand that slips through a clutched fist, the self is lost in determinacy; as Fr. Duns writes, “the self is not a discrete monad but communicative center of being” (167). The more you focus on grasping it and pinning it down, the more it evades you.
II. Narrative, Transcendence, and Flux
In the above example, we see the transition from determinacy to overdeterminacy is bound up in narrative. In saying this, I do not simply mean that we can construct a narrative in which a person shifts from one to the other; rather, I mean that each stage is defined by a particular narrative self-conception. In determinacy, the self-narrative goes something along the following lines: I am essentially a philosopher; this is what I have been trained in, and what I will spend my life pursuing. As with other narratives, there is an end or telos towards which one aims, and in light of which one sees oneself: I see my current self in light of the aim of being a philosophy professor. In the shift to indeterminacy, the narrative by which one understands oneself is radically upset; perhaps it becomes a tragedy along the following lines: I have trained all my life to be a philosopher, and this is the aim in light of which I have always understood myself, but now that aim is abolished; the end of being a philosophy professor is unattainable, and I have lost the goal through which I understood myself. The first narrative is upset and replaced by a narrative of indeterminacy; this narrative shift is precisely what makes indeterminacy so jarring.
Lastly, in overdeterminacy, a third narrative develops (99). This is the narrative that is flexible, yet still provides a vector through which to make sense of the world and to have a firm sense of self. The grad student, through renewed wonder in the world around them, is able to find sources of identity outside of academic philosophy; even if they do still work towards a future as a professor, there is a recognition that they are not wholly self-determining in this pursuit, combined with an openness to other sources of that wonder. In psychology, these more flexible narratives correlate with a greater sense of well-being, of meaning in life, and of positive emotion.4
It is in this third, more fluid, type of narrative that we see real transcendence come into play. What is interesting here is the connection between actualization of the self and transcendence. God is both the end and the origin, for Desmond;5 we come from him, and are directed towards union with him. For this reason, as Fr. Duns points out, we attain real transcendence by turning towards the immanent other, meaning other humans around us (200); in fact, to even embark upon the journey of spiritual exercises, one must enact a “radical decentering of the self” (40). But beyond this turn, a further point emerges: we fulfil ourselves not by focusing on ourselves; rather, we do so by turning towards the other, by transcending the confines of the self. As Fr. Duns writes, paraphrasing Desmond, “at its basic and most primordial level of being, each being is in relationship with what is other to it” (100). The self, like happiness, is not something found by pursuit.6 Those who pursue it, who focus on it, will remain lost. It is only those who cease looking directly for the self, but who instead turn towards that immanent other, that find the true self. This brings me to my final point: that on both Desmond’s and Duns’s theories, the self is a relational entity.
Section 3: The Self and Other
While other philosophers, from Martin Buber to contemporary feminists, have noted the relational component of the self, what appeals to me in Fr. Duns’s work is that he not only discusses this in terms of our relatedness to each other, but also in terms of our embeddedness in all of creation. The ethics of the compassio essendi tells us that we live in the midst of a human community, but also of a created world, and that we exist in a relationship of heteronomy to both. Fr. Duns notes the environmental impact of forgetting this relatedness, which results in the relativization of all goodness as “goodness for me” (218). The self attains transcendence through agapeic love, following the map that Taylor has designed and that Desmond helps us navigate:
[EXT]If Taylor furnishes the map of a secular age and its deserts, Desmond brings the metaxological dowsing rod to divine the presence of life-giving streams. With Desmond as our guide, we come to understand how there is no point on the map—ourselves included—not somehow rooted in and nourished by these agapeic streams. Taylor’s map gives us the breadth of our secular age. Desmond uncovers its agapeic depths. (224)[/EXT]
Desmond’s term, the “too-muchness” of being ties together metaphysics with ethics, and in so doing connects the metaphysical self with the good self, the self we are with the self we ought to be. Being overflows itself and gives rise to creation; this is the too-muchness. Agapeic love, similarly, overflows the confines of the lover and the beloved, drawing both to a third thing. This third thing is transcendence. The self turns towards its creator, its origin, and in so doing transcends the world of flux. As Fr. Duns writes, “Like the metaxu, the self is a dynamic process. What Desmond calls ‘selving’ expresses the ongoing process of the self’s becoming as it intermediates with the world around us. This ‘selving’ is fueled by disquieted desire and propels us on a passionate itinerary. . . . We are, from the beginning, drawn by our telos toward our telos” (87). It is this quest for wholeness, which, echoing the words of Augustine, brings us to our rest in God.
I would like to connect this point to the question that began this commentary: the quest of some philosophers for a grasp of the self as a stable entity across time. I highlighted some points from Fr. Duns’s work, indicating that the self is not found through scrutiny of it, but rather it is found indirectly, by turning towards the other. For Fr. Duns, this other is the transcendent deity. The irony here is not merely that the self finds itself by looking away from itself; there is a second irony, which is that the self in flux is only actualized by turning towards a being that transcends the flux. Fr. Duns’s project, then, suggests a perhaps surprising answer to the question of stable identity within the self: this stability is not attained through self-determinacy, but rather through returning to the origin. And, like the deep magic of Narnia, this origin transcends the world of flux within which the self is imbedded.
Section 4: Conclusion
In this commentary, I have had two main objectives. The first has been to highlight narrative as a concept that is latent within Fr. Duns’s work, and to articulate the intersection of narrative with the metaxological metaphysis that Fr. Duns espouses. The second has been to explicitly draw out some insights about the nature of the self that lie within Fr. Duns’s work. This second point I have attempted to do by discussing the self as an entity that is inherently relational, and also as something that is fulfilled by transcendence. These two components come together, on Fr. Duns’s account, when the self is oriented towards God. Thus, in a twist of events, Fr. Duns has provided a stable rock for the self, even as the self exists as a thing in the world of flux.
See Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); also, Marya Schechtman, “The Narrative Self,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Self, ed. Shaun Gallagher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 394–416.↩
See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); MacIntyre argues that our actions and our agency are only intelligible in light of some goal or end, which is part of what makes us narrative creatures.↩
See, for example, Eric Olson, “Personal Identity,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2021 edition, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/identity-personal/.↩
See L. Calhoun and R. Tedeschi, Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice (New York: Routledge, 2013).↩
Desmond, God and the Between (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 247–49.↩
See Springer, “Can Pursuing Happiness Make You Unhappy?,” ScienceDaily, March 12, 2018, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180312104036.htm; Aekyoung Kim and Sam J. Maglio, “Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 25.4 (2018) 1337–42.↩
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.
Phillip W. Rosemann, Charred Roots of Meaning: Continuity, Transgression, and the Other in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), Kindle.↩
Rosemann, Charred Roots of Meaning.↩
Elizabeth A. Johnson, Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), 128.↩
1.6.22 | Ryan Duns, SJ
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.