Who knew that books like Thinking Prayer were still being written today? Expansive, elegant, and incisive, Prevot demonstrates how spirituality, and particularly prayer, are at the heart of the best theological projects of the twentieth century – and in doing so launches one of the most promising theological projects of the twenty-first century. Prevot takes up some of the century’s most difficult philosophical and theological texts (including Heidegger, Derrida, and Balthasar) alongside poetry and songs of the enslaved; he engages with English, Spanish, French, and German sources; and he constructs productive dialogues between sources as diverse as French phenomenology and black theology. The book has been justly celebrated: Thinking Prayer was awarded the 2015 College Theology Society Best Book in Theology Award.
While this might sound like an overwhelmingly ambitious book project, the argument remains crystal clear. Theology goes astray as soon as it loses its focus on spiritual life. The challenges posed by modernity tempt theology to lose focus, but modernity also offers the chance to re-focus on spiritual life by including theological voices from marginalized communities acutely aware of the violence done when abstractions replace the soul. What is most awe-inspiring about Thinking Prayer is Prevot’s combination of incredibly wide learning with is ability to distill and describe the most important ideas of complex thinkers – and then to judge their promise and limitations. For example, in the chapter on French phenomenology Prevot presents the views of Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, John Caputo, and Jean-Louis Chrétien, managing to avoid getting bogged down in technicalities while still convincing the reader that Chrétien’s work displays a particular excellence lacking in the others because of Chrétien’s attentiveness to spiritual life.
The surprise of Thinking Prayer is that a work of such grand scholarship, in many ways reminiscent of a bygone era before scholarship was so contaminated by worldly pressures, is also so acutely aware of the problems posed by Eurocentrism and white supremacy. Indeed, an argument running throughout the book is that the interest European philosophy and theology exhibit in spiritual life is fundamentally tainted and implicitly authorizes racism and colonialism (the book’s Part 1). The proper response (the book’s Part 2) is to turn to the insights of marginalized communities who have been grappling with the same metaphysical issues as European thinkers but have done so while taking as fundamental the lived experience of the oppressed. In other words, Thinking Prayer is really making two claims, both of which should be uncontroversial but both of which are rarely embraced: theology at its best takes the spiritual life as central and theology is at its best when it privileges the voices of the oppressed.
What does it mean to think from and through tradition? Prevot shows us: his book is situated firmly in, and firmly pushes forward, Christian thought as a tradition in the richest, most intellectually stimulating sense. Prevot is not merely explicating tradition. He is at once explicating and constituting tradition, and he does so in a way that reflects the values implicit in that tradition – values of hospitality, generosity, and aesthetic and spiritual attunement. He realizes that the theologian is necessarily a storyteller, but he also realizes that there are norms governing his genre by which excellence is judged. In a sense, Prevot’s book achieves the same ends of James Cone’s foundational work in black theology, but approaching from the opposite direction. Instead of starting with the fundamental truth implicit in black life and inserting it into a Christian systematic theology, as Cone does, Prevot starts with the Christian tradition and shows how it naturally culminates in black spiritual life. The same insights are to be found in the words of a slave spiritual – nay, profounder spiritual insights – than are to be found in the many hefty tomes of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Amen.
The essays that will follow in the coming days probe and push Prevot’s project. Anne Carpenter argues that Balthasar is a more generous reader of other cultures than Prevot makes him out to be, and she argues that Balthasar is farther from Heidegger than he may at first seem. Yves De Maeseneer reflects on the implications of Prevot’s work for Europeans grappling with cultural conflict and the legacy of colonialism. Karl Hefty wonders whether something might be lost in Prevot’s embrace of the spiritual side of phenomenology – whether there might be more fruitful resources to be found in phenomenology understood as a rigorous science. Gillian Breckenridge wonders about the role of crisis and critique in Thinking Prayer, and about the pathway from prayer to activism. Finally, Ludger Viefhues-Bailey draws on a variety stories and images to open Thinking Prayer as a resource for queer theological reflection. Together, these engagements, and Prevot’s responses, demonstrate just how fruitful an intellectual project Thinking Prayer has launched.
When W. E. B. Du Bois was a young professor, newly hired at Wilberforce University, he was called on to lead the community prayer at a university gathering. “No, I won’t,” Du Bois tartly replied. A few years later, Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, surely one of the most prayerful texts ever composed. How are we to reconcile Du Bois the spiritually unmusical academic and Du Bois the master of spiritual writing? Perhaps this is the question that Thinking Prayer leaves us with: once we have appreciated the centrality of spiritual life to intellectual projects, how are we to see spiritual life integrated into the intellectual vocation? It is easy to forget that scholars still write beautiful books, but Prevot has reminded us of this; perhaps it is through contemplating such beauty that we can begin to answer this question.