Symposium Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mara Brecht


Mothering and Metaxology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. Rosemann, Charred Roots of Meaning.

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

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    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.

Renee Kohler-Ryan


Prayer in a Secular Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Ryan Duns, SJ


    Response to Renee Kohler-Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Renee Kohler-Ryan

      Renee Kohler-Ryan


      History and Poetry

      I would like to thank Dr. Duns for his response. Could I reply with a couple of thoughts that I have been mulling over in the last weeks?
      1/ I wonder if in fact Taylor’s account that porosity is (at least somewhat) lost in the present age of buffered selves, is somewhat overstated. This is part of my reasoning when I look at the dialogue between Desmond and Taylor to which Dr. Duns refers. Desmond holds to a primal porosity that is always there, for every person, but that of course may be blocked in different circumstances, including society’s allergy to transcendence. The account of secularism that Taylor gives can sound like there is no way back. Or, better put, that once the move toward secularism happened, the buffered self was always the norm. But isn’t this forgetting the discourse now that we perhaps live in a post-secular age, and that for all of our talk of secularity, there are strong pockets of resistance to secularity? What I wonder (and I would welcome a historical and/or sociological perspective on this) is whether such pockets were always there, but somehow the discourse about transcendence overlooked them, in the era of the rise of the buffered self that Taylor refers to.
      2/ Poetry and prayer: this is more of a question than a comment. I ask myself whether poetry per se is always open to transcendence such that it is religious. Or, is it the case that poetry might open up a way so that a truly religious understanding and conviction can happen. I am not convinced that all poetry is religious. And I’m also not sure if all poetry is open to transcendence. Some cases are obvious: Gerard Manley Hopkins writes religious poetry. Some are less obvious: there are poets who are highly attuned to the wonders to be found in the mundane, but who do not necessarily think that such wonder is possible because daily life is constantly touched by something more.

    • Ryan Duns, SJ

      Ryan Duns, SJ


      Response to Kohler-Ryan

      I’m grateful to Dr Kohler-Ryan for her response. I’d like to offer two thoughts:

      On my reading of A Secular Age, I see Taylor as retaining a sense of hope. At least, I hope he is hopeful: he remains, to my knowledge, a practicing Catholic. His “buffered self” describes an aspect, if not the defining aspect, of our modern social imaginary. I don’t think he has to be taken as seeing this as a terminal condition but, rather, as an observation about how many today get along in their lives. Desmond has described this in places as a “default atheism” that takes atheism as granted and not as the result of rigorous argument. From my limited work in the university, I might hedge a bit and describe it as a “default agnosticism.” There may be a God, or there may not be one. It’s hard to get students to commit because for as much as they clamor for choices, they are often petrified of choosing and committing. I see this a lot with young people who do not burn out but rust out. So afraid are they of missing out (FOMO) that they delay committing themselves to anything, let alone the Transcendent.

      But if Taylor’s long, long, long, long story about how we arrived at “buffered self,” this way of imaging the human person as unmoored from the divine, it does not end on in despair. What I called his “Narnian Moment” on page 755 indicates that he does this a new awakening, a new reopening can take place. We can renew our sense of the primal porosity of being, but the old ways that might have worked in other generations will not be sufficient. We need new ways, new languages; we need new practices…or old practices renewed and undertaken in novel ways. The hope for this sort of renewal has been a feature of Taylor’s tales for some time. Even in 1989, at the conclusion of Sources of the Self, he admitted that part of his project was to resuscitate the “half-collapsed lungs of the spirit.”1

      In a way, I think Taylor’s “buffered self” incarnates Desmond’s “reconfigured ethos” where there is an antinomy between autonomy and transcendence. Desmond certainly does not think these hostile polarities and works assiduously to reveal the falsity of the alternative either autonomy or transcendence. Desmond’s work does not take us back in time but, in repristinating our sense of our primal porosity, tasks us with moving into the future in a more metaphysically informed and attuned manner. I think the same might be said for Taylor’s self, although he has not undertaken the un-buffering of the self to the extent that Desmond has addressed the porosity of the ethos.

      I certainly agree that not all poetry is open to the Transcendent. I’d be hard pressed to press Philip Larkins “Aubade” into my students’ hands! Then again, the poem might occasion a “return to zero” that would force them to reckon with despair in a new register. To stand between love and lament, to feel the cross-pressures as each pulls and tugs…what exercises one about “Aubade” could become its own sort of spiritual exercise.

      It cannot be denied, then, that certain poets like Hopkins lend themselves better to the exercises I enjoin in my book. Off the top of my head I would group him with more contemporary poets like Denise Levertov and Mary Oliver. I wonder if that might not be an interesting assignment at some point: challenge students to assess various poets based on way the poetry can be practiced.

      1. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 520.

Mark Novak


Formative Exercises for an Informative World

How Can Metaxology Shape Us before Filling Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 26.

  4. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 25.

  5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 86.

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

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

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Ryan Duns, SJ


    Response to Mark Novak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Neal DeRoo


 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.

  1. Vattimo makes this argument in After Christianity, trans. Luca D’Isanto (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

  2. 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.

  3. For more on optimality in Husserl, cf. Anthony J. Steinbock, Home and Beyond: Generative Phenomenology After Husserl (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), 1995.

  4. 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.

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Ryan Duns, SJ


    Response to Neal DeRoo

    Neal DeRoo raises, with estimable precision, questions that cut to the heart of the substance and constructive aim of my project. For his critical engagement I am grateful, as they provide an opportunity to restate crucial aspects of Desmond’s contribution to metaphysics and, more constructively, to theology. My regret is that this is not a conversation being held viva voce in a bar or over coffee.

    As I read Neal’s response, I identify two main foci: the nature of the “primal ethos” and the question of normativity when it comes to orthoaesthesis. After briefly explicating how Desmond (and I) understand the “primal ethos,” I will take a Taylor-turn and revisit an aspect of his argumentative method that I think will prove helpful. What Taylor refers to as the contrastive “better account” may provide a way to address the question of normativity.

    By primal ethos Desmond refers to the metaxu in its sheer ontological givenness. In a more familiar theological idiom, the primal ethos is the result of creatio ex nihilo. It is creation as given to be at all. Every era puts its imprint on the primal ethos, configuring and reconfiguring it according to the age’s concerns and values. What metaxology seeks is to explore our reconfigured ethos in a search for signs or intimations of the primal ethos breaking through. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a fine poetic portal to this insight. Although the human foot be shod, although all is “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” the potency of creation has not been spent or exhausted. Metaxology provides ways of beholding our ethos in a manner that is attuned to its overdeterminacy, to the ways that any human manner of reconfiguring the primal ethos cannot fully conceal the shine of creation as given. There is a similarity here with Marion’s saturated phenomena: there is always more to what is given than can be fully grasped or comprehended.

    For Desmond, a metaxological metaphysics is a method of inquiry but it has content which it is tasked with exploring, namely, being in its givenness. The primal ethos is because given to be by a Creator, by God.1 Aquinas’s third way originates in the ontological realm: we see beings coming into being and passing out of being. Each one bears the mark or “crack” of finitude so that, even though it is now, it will at some point cease to be. Aquinas’s argument peers into the crack of finitude and discerns signs of the primal ethos that attests to its being created and sustained in being by a Creator. In his “return to zero,” Desmond offers an existential version of Aquinas’s argument: one meditates on one’s finitude, passes beneath the nihil, and can experience a resurrection of astonishment that anything is at all. I don’t know that such a meditative experience is limited to any specific religious tradition: the reality of our contingency seems undeniable. What is up for debate is whether the nihil that shadows all finite being should lead to a sense of despair or rekindle a sense of astonishment that can direct one’s mind toward the reality of a Creator.

    There is, then, a type of natural theology to be found in Desmond’s work. I think here of Anthony Godzieba’s recent A Theology of the Presence and Absence of God and the way it provides a rich and rigorous overview of the way natural theology enacts “the rational search for the natural access-point of faith.”2 In the book’s third chapter, Godzieba canvasses several attempts at natural theology. Noteworthy here is his treatment of Hans Küng. Küng does not offer a demonstrable “proof” for God’s existence. Rather, Küng invites readers to ponder whether we are warranted to trust in the coherence of reality. None of us is unfamiliar with change and instability as the circle of life turns and beings are born and die. Nevertheless, the instability of creation does not prevent us from attempting to find meaning in the whole. But this forces us to consider whether reality lacks any foundation or meaning-giving source or if it is rooted in a reality that endows it with meaning, with a logos. The decision to affirm “God exists” amounts to an affirmation that reality does, in fact, “hold together” and that it is capable of supporting our trust.3 In Taylor’s terms, Küng wagers that belief in God leads to a “better account” of the way we live our lives. With God as the foundation, one can place one’s trust in the operation of the world; the atheist, by contrast, can give no reason for affirming the reliability of reality.

    I mention “better account” because, like Taylor, I don’t think there’s any neutral “view from nowhere” that allows for detached or disengaged evaluation. An atheist, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Catholic can all undertake, say, the “return to zero.” But how does this experience get integrated into a the “framework” that makes sense of how one lives one’s life? Everything comes to nothing: do we despair of the nihil or are we struck into astonishment? Presumably, the atheist and the theist will differ in their responses. An atheist may be astonished but cannot imagine that this astonishment points toward a creator. A theist may experience creation’s givenness as hyperbolic, as “throwing one over” (hyper-ballein) the realm of finitude toward the Transcendent source of all existence. How, then, does this cash out in the way one lives? How, among theists, does this astonishment shape their way of life? I wonder if a shared spiritual practice might not lead to an enriched dialogue between parties, a dialogue that invites participants to account not simply for what they think but how they live their lives. In a sense, dialogue about the “better account” brings together one’s ethical and metaphysical commitments: is one’s life coherent with one’s metaphysical beliefs? Through dialogue parities can contrast and evaluate which framework better explains a life.

    To Neal’s question, “Would the staunch secularist—or the Buddhist or the Hindu—be convinced by the results of this journey,” I say: That’d be a great study! That, in fact, calls for many nights at the bar, because the only way to answer the question is through a commitment to ongoing dialogue. It would be interesting to invite a diverse body of persons to undertake the same metaxological exercises and to listen as each describes how the practice affected the way they understood their ethos. Why do some practitioners maintain that this is all there is whereas others discern within their ethos traces of more and signs that point back to a Creator? Are there advantages or disadvantages associated with each? What kind of life does it make possible? Are some ways of life more credible than others?

    Every pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in light of a story. Tweaked: every pilgrimage is a journey undertaken within a framework that promises to “make sense” its movements. The “right perception” progressively attained through metaxological exercises enables one to recognize disclosures of the primal ethos of creation, disclosures that point toward the Creator. The secularist and the metaxological theist can dialogue on how they regard the world and how their way of life coheres with their vision of reality. The question will be which vision of reality makes better sense of their lives and experiences. What sort of life does each framework make possible? Does one have advantages over the other?

    Responding to Neal’s question with my questions will hardly be satisfying. In part, this is due to the realization that there is no definitive or determine “rightness” to right perception. Metaxology endeavors to make sense of the ways beings intermediate with one another and, ultimately, intermediate with the creative and sustaining source of all being. Growth in “right perception” is an ongoing task. Metaxologically, it means remaining vigilant for epiphanic disclosures of the Creator. A metaxological vision of reality sees more, and not less, than the secularist’s vision because it recognizes creation’s innermost depths not as inertly there but as communicative. The metaxological vocation bids one to stand at the threshold between creation and its Creator and to be willing to respond in faith should the Creator, through Word and Spirit, call one by name.

    1. William Desmond, “God, Ethos, Ways,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 45.1 (February 1999) 13–30.

    2. Anthony Godzieba, A Theology of the Presence and Absence of God (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2018), 127.

    3. Godzieba, A Theology of the Presence and Absence of God, 131.

Felix Ó Murchadha


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.

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Ryan Duns, SJ


    Response to Felix Ó Murchadha

    Felix Ó Murchadha will have no reason at all to remember this, but we met over twenty years ago when I was a visiting student a NUI, Galway. I took two philosophy courses in the Fall 2000 semester with his colleague Markus Wörner (Ancient Philosophy and Hermeneutics) and one of my fellow students raved about Felix. One afternoon, after class, she introduced me to him. I would not have expected, as a twenty-year-old chemistry major, that I’d eventually focus on theology and develop an interest the relationship between philosophy, theology, and religious practice. It is an honor to respond to Felix’s brilliant reflection and I hope that, soon, I’ll be able to deepen a relationship begun in nuce in a hallway in 2000.

    I think Felix is right in specifying philosophy’s “faith” as “trust in the intelligibility and purpose of things calling attention to the everyday occurrences of the transcendent, which transcends any (confessional) faiths.” This description resonates with Hans Küng’s argument that, despite the “thoroughgoing uncertainty of reality in the ontic, noetic, and ethical senses” human beings do demonstrate a fundamental trust in reality as meaningful.1 The foundation of this trust: God. Decades earlier (1941), Karl Rahner described the philosophy of religion (or metaphysics) as giving an account of the “ready openness and the open readiness for theology.”2 We are what we should be, as potential hearers of the word, when we stand not only attuned to the transcendent (that God is) but open to the revelatory manifestation of who God is. Philosophy’s faith is oriented by the logos of the created order and bids us to attune ourselves to this logos; theology’s faith arises in response to having heard God’s self-disclosive Word or Logos.

    At my dissertation defense, Richard Kearney pressed me on the question of whether there were two logoi or one. I hesitated then because I was keen to maintain the barrier between the logos philosophy discerns and the Logos to which theology responds. I still do not want to collapse theology and philosophy together, but I would today say there is one Logos known in two ways. There is the Logos apprehended by natural reason and known inchoately and the Logos revealed in history through the Incarnation. Thomas Aquinas describes the move from general to distinct cognition:

    For instance, with respect to place, when something is seen from afar, it is perceived to be a body before it is perceived to be an animal, and it is perceived to be an animal before it is perceived to be a man, and it is perceived to be a man before it is perceived to be Socrates or Plato. (Summa Theologiae I.85 a.3)

    One can affirm in general that something is (which, I take it, is the task of natural theology). That said, it is only the in advent of the One now indistinctly known to us, only in the self-disclosive act of revelation, that this God is made known to faith. It is not, then, that there are two Gods but that God is known in two ways: one generally and indistinct (ST I.2.1) and one through the work of the Spirit that opens our eyes to perceiving the Logos: Jesus Christ.

    A metaxological approach to philosophy and theology enables one to consider the logos of the metaxu in two ways. Philosophically, we can question the way each era has reconfigured the primal ethos: where and how is this reconfiguration true to the primal ethos of creation as given? Where has this reconfiguration betrayed creation as gift? For Desmond, we can never take leave of the primal ethos. We may build on it, pave over it, or totally ignore it (as our current ecological crises testify) but we cannot extinguish it. But one can, in every era, set out on an archaeological project to uncover what has been concealed. A return to the primal ethos rekindles a sense of astonishment and puts us in mind of creation and its Creator. This is the threshold toward which philosophy can guide the seeker who must then await should this Creator decide to speak, an address that requires the gift of grace to recognize and respond to the divine address.

    Maybe my thoughts have become overly influenced by Jean-Luc Marion’s Givenness and Revelation.3 In this text, Marion distinguishes an alethic logic that accents the human subject’s role in attaining knowledge from an apocalyptic logic that stresses God’s self-revelation. Felix, my superior in knowledge of Heidegger and Marion: is this an adequate distinction? If so, then might we not regard philosophical investigation as governed by an alethic logic that unconceals, a logic that gives free range to reason to explore on its terms? An apocalyptic logic would, however, disrupt human reason’s questing by disclosing a divine logic, a Logos, a celestial wisdom that does not cohere with the wisdom of the terrestrial world.

    This comes to bear on my sense of epiphanic attunement and the notion of breakdown. Epiphanic attunement is a mode of perception that is attuned not only to the overdeterminacy of being, its too-muchness and saturatedness, but to the way this overdeterminacy manifests itself within the world. Epiphanic disclosures, to the orthoaesthetic subject, are not illogical but point toward a deeper logic. By grace, one can find oneself caught up within and reformed by this theo-logic. Desmond’s engagement with Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” narrates this sort of experience: a total breakdown of Ruby Turpin’s world that reveals, in a painful yet salutary manner, the revolutionary breakthrough to a revealed logic. The breakdown in “Revelation” does, indeed, reveal “world” as such if it returns her to the primal ethos where a logos at odds with her reductive logic manifests itself to her.

    Felix beautifully concludes by urging a consideration of different modes of reverence. I could not agree more. For my part, I believe metaxology’s sensitivity to the “intimate universal” leads not to silent revery but can goad those attuned to it to seek out the connections binding all of creation together. We do not need reified rituals or techniques to command that before which we are summoned to be reverent. Instead, we need metaxological practices and rituals that re-compose us as seekers attentive to creation’s depths who listen vigilantly lest the Creator call us by name. By our own power, we cannot grasp or compel any such revelation (Desmond’s conatus), but we can dispose ourselves to receive this revelation (passio) wherever, whenever, and however it is offered.

    As with each of my respondents, I look forward to a time when we can gather in person to share stories and ideas. I am humbled that Felix took the time to read my book and I’m grateful for being allowed to “punch above my weight” in responding to him. I hope I have done justice to his response and I truly look forward to learning more from him.

    1. Hans Kung, Does God Exist? An Answer for Today (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 565.

    2. Karl Rahner, Hearer of the Word: Laying the Foundation for a Philosophy of Religion, trans. Joseph Donceel, SJ (New York: Continuum, 1994), 150.

    3. Jean-Luc Marion, Givenness and Revelation, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Alexandra T. Romanyshyn


The Self in Flux

A Commentary on Fr. Ryan Duns’s Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age

I. Introduction

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. See, for example, Eric Olson, “Personal Identity,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2021 edition,

  4. See L. Calhoun and R. Tedeschi, Posttraumatic Growth in Clinical Practice (New York: Routledge, 2013).

  5. Desmond, God and the Between (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 247–49.

  6. See Springer, “Can Pursuing Happiness Make You Unhappy?,” ScienceDaily, March 12, 2018,; Aekyoung Kim and Sam J. Maglio, “Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 25.4 (2018) 1337–42.

  • Ryan Duns, SJ

    Ryan Duns, SJ


    Response to Alexandra Romanyshyn

    Many thanks to Alexandra Romanyshyn for perceiving and, in effect, performing the importance of narrative in my book. What attracts me to Taylor and Desmond, and of late Iris Murdoch, is their willingness to tell a big story. But inviting others to gather around the campfire to listen to a big story is not without risk. Some in the audience will question why certain parties or figures were left out; other listeners will challenge who has been included; still others will ask whether we can tell big stories at all anymore. Nevertheless, Taylor and Desmond do not tell “the story” and walk away. Instead—and here I date my childhood to the 1980s—they offer readers a version of the “Choose Your Adventure” book. As we take up and read, one asks: “Can I abide within this narrative and make its story my own? Where does it ring true? Ring false? Does the story give a “better account” of my life and experience? If it does not, how might it be better revised?”

    Even if we regard Taylor’s A Secular Age or Desmond’s God and the Between as a gift, we can also regard them as tasks to be undertaken. In her reflection on the role of self and narrative, Alexandra rightly identifies resonances between human development and our ability to appreciate being in its determinacy, indeterminacy, and overdeterminacy. Allow me to make a comment on these before saying something about Alexandra’s sense of the inherent relationality of being.

    It strikes me that one way of thinking about determinacy, indeterminacy, and overdeterminacy would be in terms of mood. By mood I mean the general atmosphere that affects how the world appears to us and how we experience the world. One need not delve into Heidegger’s Stimmung to get a sense of this: If I am in a churlish mood, there may not be any one thing that is bothering me. Everything feels as though it were attempting to elicit my outrage. In such a mood, your nervous tic that I generally find endearing suddenly becomes unbearable. My churlish mood shapes how I perceive, and respond, to what shows up within my phenomenological field.

    As Taylor and Desmond narrate, cultures are equally susceptible to mood swings. In an era where the mood is set by a rage for fixity and certainty, for determinism, only those things that can be counted can count as mattering. Anything that cannot be quantified or schematized must be regarded with suspicion, if not rejected outright. Many of us will recognize this in reductivist accounts, say, of religion that attempt to reduce it to one feature. Mary Midgely, who gets the phrase from Donald MacKay, refers to this as “nothing buttery.” Unlike cold Kerry Gold, this “nothing buttery” spreads very easily and can be applied in broad strokes. Why bother with puzzling over the roots of religion, what it means to be human, or the nature of love when one can confidently affirm that each one is nothing but a projection, an animal, or a bestial urge? A culture possessed by a “determinist mood” expects phenomena to submit themselves before the bar of human rationality. Anything that we cannot account for must be shorn away.

    Determinacy’s “rage for order” can be contrasted with the mood of “indeterminacy.” Within this mood, what had seemed fixed and complete is revealed as plastic and open-ended. I sense that students face this indeterminacy in the vast range of choices presented to them. Be this! Do that! What provokes anxiety within them—if I may borrow a term from Taylor—is not the nova of choices they face but the pressure to make a choice. Committing to one option is terrifying because, by staking one’s claim to this and not that, they close themselves off to some routes or options. One reason I love teaching theology to first-year college students, in part, because at Marquette we make a special effort to teach them the skill of discernment. Rather than seeing theology as a determined set of doctrines to be memorized, and rather than seeing theology as some subjective “spiritual quest” to be the best version of themselves, we offer them resources drawn from the tradition with the intent of empowering them to discern well. Amid the flux of daily life, we try to help them find some touchstones and solid ground on which to stand and orient their lives.

    (An aside, one intended to be humorous: after reading several papers with slogans like be the best version of myself or live my truth, I found myself ill at ease. These are phrases fitting for coffee mugs and self-help posters, but are ultimately pretty thin. As I was returning their papers and discussing my impressions, I finally blurted out, “Folks, I just have to say, I don’t like this whole be the best version of myself business. I mean, if you’re an a*#hole, don’t be the best version of that. Be different! Be better!” I thank God that my students have come to expect random outbursts and find me entertaining. I also thank God that Ethan is my TA who can “translate” for me when needed!)

    Desmond resists an either/or choice between determinacy and indeterminacy. His metaphysics preserves a sense of the determinate thisness of each finite being while refusing to freeze the flux of becoming, thereby preserving the dynamism of indeterminacy. This brings us to “overdeterminacy,” an awareness that there is more to reality than can ever be grasped. One of Desmond’s gifts is for helping readers to recognize the ways that the finite order can gesture beyond itself toward an endowing and creative source: the infinite, the transcendent, God. In this, there’s a bit of natural theology that detects within creation passages or portals that lead toward the Creator. To be sure, this is not unique to Desmond: at least since Thales, philosophy has been inspired by the bite of astonishment and a sense of being’s “too-muchness.” Desmond has a knack for inviting readers into a philosophical performance intended to awaken them to this excess. We cannot fix or measure or hope to manage being’s overdeterminacy, but we can contemplate it. Marvel that there is anything at all (Heidegger), probe how nature’s “Pied Beauty” bespeaks its creator (Hopkins), expend your efforts fruitlessly in trying to grasp the essence of a fruit fly (Aquinas): there always remains an inexhaustible remainder, a too-muchness that cannot be penetrated or mastered by the finite mind. A metaxologically minded person endeavors to be faithful to this inexhaustible source that is both the origin and end of our questioning. By tutoring readers how to meditate within the metaxu, Desmond invites them to discover themselves in the presence of a haloing Mystery.

    Alexandra senses the consequence of Desmond’s metaxology: his account of the between (logos of the metaxu) provides a radical account of our common home (logos of the oikos). The intimate strangeness of being is Desmond’s way of talking about the way that what creates and sustains me within my being cannot be domesticated by me; although intimate to the self, it is not constrained by it. The Creator who gives me to be binds all of creation together in the trembling web of being. We become ourselves—Desmond calls this, after Gerard Manley Hopkins, “selving”—amid other selves and other beings. We are inescapably beings-in-relation to others (René Girard describes this as being “interdividual”; Kenneth Gergen’s “relational being” captures this as well).

    I love that Alexandra concludes by evoking Narnia. Aslan possessed a knowledge of the deep magic that led him to confront the Witch’s blade and to meet his demise. That was not, however, the end of his story . . . nor the end of the children’s story. And, for those who read it today, the story lives on, at least within our imaginations. As a child, I rampaged through my grandparents’ houses in search of wardrobes with secret passages (alas, their decorating sense had been colonized by the 1960s and there were no ancient wardrobes to be had). But the seeds of my Christian sacramental imagination were planted, in part, through the story of Narnia. I drank then, as I continue to do today, at the wellspring of wonder: that Aslan overcame death, that Jesus is raised from the grip of death, that the Spirit inspires us to undertake discipleship’s pilgrimage, that the God who creates everything knows me by name. By grace, I have discovered myself not in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story but as caught up in the “Adventure of Being Chosen.”

    A good philosophical narrative of the self, one true to the metaphysical complexity and overdeterminacy of the metaxu, does not need to begin with “Once upon a time” to be compelling. It does, however, need to be a doubly relational narrative. It needs, that is, to show how to be at all is to-be-in-relation to the metaxu considered horizontally (the community of being) and vertically (community with the Agapeic Other). And the narrative must also be crafted with the intent of inviting others to “try the story on for size” to see if they can find their place within it. I find this narrative at work in Taylor and Desmond and must express my thanks to Alexandra Romanyshyn for detecting it in mine. I’m encouraged that Alexandra recognizes it as part of her task, perhaps her philosophical vocation, not only to “take up and read” but also to “take up and continue to write.”