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.