Symposium Introduction

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.

Response

Prayer as Schola Affectus?

Affect, Liturgy, Gender

One “cannot argue with a song,” claims Maurice Bloch. 1 How could one? Perhaps, only by staying silent or by singing another song, a different tune, in a different modulation, or out of tune? Perhaps, the same holds true for doxologies. How can one argue with a profoundly learned and insightful text that its author explicitly frames as an oblation of praise, where his voice interlaces with other men’s prayerful rigorous thought?

I take solace in Andrew Prevot’s choice of identifying Thinking Prayer as precisely that, his prayer. This choice allows me to listen for and be moved by the register of affect suffusing his thought. And thus I feel invited to respond to his doxology, in a similar manner, i.e., with personal thought albeit in a modulation that, while hopefully attuned to his call, will nevertheless appear to be out of tune. Particularly, I hope to pick up strands in his thought that seem essential to his project and have not perhaps found enough attention: these are the strands of the affective, liturgical and, gendered nature of prayer.

Vignettes

Saying the rosary over and over at the bedside of a man dying in his thirties.

Being the guest of a group of homeless squatting in Berlin and praying the assigned psalms from the liturgy of the hours while the police in riot gear get ready to evict them.

After a long silence listening to a woman tell me: “For the longest time I prayed that I was not infected but now I realize, I am who I am with the virus. And I don’t want to be different.” She taught me what Ignatius could have meant with the third degree of humility in the contemplation for love. And my prayer returned to her time and again.

At 2:40 p.m. in a freezing Trappist church the realization that the discipline of breathing and presence required in ministering to the dying similar to that required of praising G-d in the grueling cycle of monastic contemplation.

The Ignatian lineage in Prevot’s thought (Przywara, van Balthasar, Rahner, Ellacuría) rekindled in me these memories from a time when for slightly more than a decade I submitted to the disciplines of liturgical prayer and of contemplation in action. Fifteen years ago, I left this discipline, the Roman Church, and moreover a life of prayer anchored in, what Zubiri calls “transcendent transcendence” (255).

Yet, memories like these have not left me—and with them their affective imprint that returns to consciousness if I sit in a certain manner or breath in deep yet measured ways. Sometimes the touch of a rosary bring back—like a mnemotechnic device, one fate for each bead—the voices, faces, or stories of the men and women—mostly from my time in hospice ministry—with, by, and for whom my prayer lived. Thus prayer appears to my mind as memory of practices that are profoundly situational, affective, embodied, and communal, dare I say liturgical.

Consequently, Prevot’s chapter on Ellacuria resonates particularly with me, notably the following claim: “Ellacuría offers a general account of Christian spirituality as an integrated, nonreducitve, discerning, theological, pneumatological, christological, solidaristic, and holistic prayerful way of life” (263). But what is the role of affect in such a way of life?

Prayer as Schola Affectus

In describing Ellacuría’s theology of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises Prevot resorts to the affective language of longing and fulfillment in the register of desire—language that later reappears powerful in his chapter on prayerful song. Yet, Prevot does not explore the role of affect for Ellacuría in more detail, despite the fact that the disciplining of affect is so important to Ignatian prayer and Jesuit life.

Ignatius calls the school of affectivity (schola affectus) the final stage of Jesuit formation. During this so-called Tertianship, a phase that Ellacuría underwent like many others, Jesuits in training should

apply themselves in the school of the heart [schola affectus], by exercising themselves in spiritual and corporal pursuits which can engender in them greater humility, abnegation of all sensual love and will and judgement of their own, and also greater knowledge and love of God our Lord: that when they themselves have made greater progress they can better help others to progress for glory to God our Lord.”

This is a condensed formulation of the integrative understanding of spirituality that Prevot celebrates in Ellacuría’s work, one that sees progressing toward doxology as requiring a holistic discipline of the body and soul. And the schooling of affect is a central part of this progress.

The goal of this schooling is similar to that of the final contemplation for gaining love that together with the “Foundation and Principle” bookends the Exercises: the attaining of a bodily, disciplined affect and attitude of humility. How does the contemplation go about achieving this goal? By engaging the sensual body. This is the same process that, rooted in the insights of the so-called devotio moderna, Ignatius recommends for the first three weeks of the Exercises. For example, we should contemplate on the smells, the tones of voices, etc., that suffuse a particular biblical narrative and scene. Spiritual work thus requires bodily work through the nexus of our affectivity.

This nexus has not only pedagogical but also epistemological relevance. At stake in this discipline of desire is “greater knowledge and love of God our Lord [sic!].” This epistemological point has consequences for the project of Thinking Prayer by implying that theological epistemology has to be affective and thus attuned to the substantial role of disciplined desire. Thus, it appears to me as well that theology as corporeal work intersects intimately with our erotic bodies (cf. 14f.).

Prayer as Queer Eucharistic

Doctrinally, the Eucharist constitutes the most privileged site of body discipline in the Roman Church. It is the performance where human bodies are fused with and into the body of Christ, where imitation of Christ and intimate affiliation turns into becoming Christ’s multifaceted, ecclesial, and eschatological body. Read through the register of desire, queer readings of this church and Christ constituting performance reveal a great affinity with Prevot’s doxology while also problematizing the question of agency in our acts of knowing G-d and ourselves in the divine light.

The theologian Ángel Méndez-Montoya argued most recently that the “Eucharistic body is queer in the sense of imagining a body politics of radical inclusion.”2 Understood as a public and thus political act, both the Eucharist and queer theologies aim for a performative body theology of hybridized and displaced body identities that enable a particular desire. This desire, according to Méndez-Montoya is a hunger for both a particular type of body and for a particular type of communion.

It is a desire for a form of embodiment where identity is “exceeding itself,” where “one is in the Other without overcoming differences and without annulling self-presence” (336f.). Drawing on Marcella Althaus-Reid, he describes the Eucharistic hunger therefore as a desire for a “queer, radical love that has the courage to welcome those whose bodies are labeled ‘indecent’” (339).

This particular desire for a queer body and community contrasts with Western Christendom’s “predominant appetite for global expansionism, for wealth, violence, and control over the Other” (330). Analyzed through the focus of “appetite” and “desire,” Eucharistic desire appears as a queer performance of a counter-political imagination to colonial and economic violence. Thus, alterity lies at the heart of Eucharistic normativity, because a boundary-transgressive, embodied divinity motivates this passion play of feeding and desire.

At this point, Prevot’s reading of Ellacuría allows us to see that part of such a critical political theology must be not only the expression of queer longing but also the witness of glory, and we may qualify, queer glory (264).

However, such queer glory is constituted in the Eucharist through the imbrication of bodies and agencies that the liturgy provokes.3 Mark Jordan argues that in the Eucharistic feast we take on each other’s bodies, become one another, in becoming one with the one who we are and are not, the divine body of Christ (Jordan, 1997, 2000, 2001a). Patrick Cheng comments that “these substitutions point to the ultimate instability of identities” and to the sacramental power to “dissolve the boundaries between female and male, divine and human, guilt and innocence . . . and other binary categories, and therefore provide us with a foretaste of the radical love to come.”4

Queer glory therefore questions the oppositional structure of human agency in the contrast between human desire and divine fulfillment. Desire, agency, vulnerability, and divinity cannot be clearly located on one or the other end of Eucharistic action, but are, as it were, smeared over the continuum of the liturgical relationships. The concomitant ontological picture is not a processional understanding of analogia entis but rather one of erotic interbeing.

Erotic Foundation and Principle of Doxology

In my reading of Wittgenstein, the goal of philosophizing is to free us from captivating pictures of the world and ourselves (Phil. Inves., 115). These are pictures that we inexorably reinscribe on our bodies through language and that limit our thoughts and ability to live fuller human lives.

Inspired by Prevot, I might say that the goal of queer erotic liturgical thinking then is to help free the liturgist from language and body practices that disable a full-throated doxology in our spiritual-material and divine-human entanglement.

Returning to the opening memories of situational prayer it seems to me that the question of what prevents us from doxology can not be answered in abstract by pointing to “prayer as such,” as it were. So let me offer another memory:

As a German whose parents belong to the generation enmeshed in responsibility for the Holocaust, I felt particularly attentive to Prevot’s insightful reading of Metz’s insistence that we must pray because “they did” pray in the midst of the horrors of the Shoa. These passages reminded me of David Weiss Halivin’s autobiography The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction.5

As a survivor of the camps, David Wesiss Halivini argues that he cannot read the Talmud in the same way as before and yet he has to preserve it as refuge. The horrors of the Shoah require him to acknowledge that something is wrong with tradition or the Talmud. At the same time, the horrors of the Shoah require him to hold onto the tradition or the Talmud. “Personally, I found this balance in the critical study of Jewish texts, in a combination of criticism [of their veracity] and the belief in the divine origin of the text. [. . .] I undertake critical study of the Talmud and at the same time the Talmud is my bastion which I can always come home to and find solace in” (162).

Critical study of the divine revelation involves, as we may say, a queering of agency. Halivni reminds us that once the rabbis of the Talmud rejected G-d’s attempt at intervening in a dispute about how to interpret the Torah.6 “Man exercises, as it were, leverage over him. Man controls His Torah. Gaining hegemony over a text and at the same time insisting that it is a divine text [expresses the following contradiction]: that tradition failed, and yet there is a need for right and wrong to be continuous” (162).

I cannot claim Halivini’s words but I feel claimed by his insistence that tradition failed and by Prevot’s insight that Ellacuría’s work is distinct by marrying longing and glory (269). Thus, I wonder: Who controls G-d’s words that Her gift of self releases to us to speak/sing Her glory?

Traditional Eucharistic theology sees this ritual as the source of the church’s power to speak as the body of Christ and speak itself into being as that body. If we follow the queer readings of the Eucharistic body performance, then the principle and foundation of such speech is unstable in a particular way. Glory, the Eucharistic body, divine agency are not unproblematic sources from which speech proceeds. They are fraught gestures in a weaving performance offering refuge and denying it.


  1. Maurice Bloch, “Symbol, Song, Dance and Features of Articulation: Is Religion an Extreme Form of Traditional Authority,” Archives Europeenes de Sociologie 15 (1974): 71.

  2. Ángel Méndez-Montoya, “Eucharistic Imagination: A Queer Body Politics,” Modern Theology 30:2 (2014): 326.

  3. For van Balthasar’s ejaculatory vision of the Eucharist see: “The Christian and Chastity,” Elucidations, ET (London, 1975), 150. Cf. Karen Kilby, “Gender in the Theology of Hans Urs van Balthasar,” in Simon Oliver et al. (eds), Faithful Reading: New Essays in Theology in Honour of Fergus Kerr, OP (New York: Clark, 2012), 155–72. For an incisive reading of gender in von Balthasar, see Linn Tonstead, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude (New York: Routledge, 2015), 46ff.

  4. Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997); Patrick S. Cheng, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology (New York: Seabury, 2011).

  5. David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996).

  6. “The Oven of Akhnai (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b),” http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.come-and-hear.com/babamezia/babamezia_59.html.

  • Andrew Prevot

    Reply

    Reply to Ludger Viefhues-Bailey

    Let me begin with a brief litany of themes and places of contact:

    Eucharist, thanksgiving, liturgy—above all I want to express thanks for this beautiful response to my book, while conceding that in it I offer only a few passing glances at liturgy (29).

    Affect, emotion, experience—I was moved by this response, not only by the vignettes, which stirred me up inside and let me feel in an imaginary but still bodily way what it might have been like to be present in those precarious moments, but also by the richly suggestive discussion of liturgy as a queering of identities. The density of emotion that I felt reading this response is present in my work, too, but it is true that I have not worked much directly on the theme of emotion.

    Gender, sexuality, eros—how can one talk about desire (as I do throughout the book) without explicit and thoughtful consideration of gender and sexuality? This is a question that I anticipate (33). Moreover, I welcome it. It is a topic about which I would like eventually to say much more.

    Song, hymn, doxology—they are not arguments, and yet perhaps they can be. There is a blending of pathos and logos in them. This seems true of my own work and of Viefhues-Bailey’s captivating offering. Are we singing in tune or out of town? How many notes can one strike in a single piece? How many movements are too few or too many? I am left feeling that there was only so much that I found a way to say in this text and so much more that might have entered in, as a harmony or as a key change. At the same time, what a gift it is to listen to others’ songs and receive new thoughts, insights, and experiences from them.

    When my book finally made its way into print, I announced it on Facebook by jokingly remarking that “my album was dropping.” For better or worse, that’s how the experience felt. God-willing, this will not be my only “album.” Gendered questions about the ways that masculinities, femininities, and boundary-defying intimacies have shaped and destabilized the Christian mystical tradition and contemporary philosophical and theological accounts of it are my current scholarly preoccupation. I am interested not only in “the mystics” (according to whatever canon one likes) but also the whole range of bodies that can be called mystical in one sense or another because of the ways that Christ becomes intensely present in and through them (including the Eucharist, the church, bodies in pain, bodies in bliss, bodies in loving action, and so on). This is all to say that I hope Thinking Prayer will not be my last word, because certainly it does not say everything that I would like eventually to say. Nonetheless, I do not at this point expect that in future works I will make any radical departures from the fundamental theological orientation—of a prayerful way of thought and life—that I have already outlined here.

    The Ignatian tradition of spirituality is dear to me. Although I am not myself a Jesuit, I teach at a Jesuit university and recently participated in a 19th annotation retreat in everyday life. One of the gifts of this tradition, as I have come to experience it myself, is its attention to the senses, the imagination, and the “movements” inside of us, which call for vigilant awareness and discernment. I have perhaps erred rather heavily in this book on the side of affirming prayer’s ability to be united with intellect. A prayerful person can and must be a critical thinker. But what is the origin of this thinking if not the movements that take place between the whole of our corporeal and spiritual existence and the hidden life of God? Ultimately I do not want any sort of thinking that can be adequately understood apart from the deepest songs and desires of the heart and the communal celebrations of divine and creaturely gifts that we call liturgy.

    I first became interested in prayer by praying the rosary with my family and sometimes too with a lovely community of women who were known to me simply as “my mom’s rosary group.” I also learned to pray by sitting and kneeling before a monstrance in quiet periods of Eucharistic adoration. These extracurricular spiritual practices deepened my appreciation for the ordinary celebration of the Mass: listening to the readings and homily, singing the psalms and hymns (a real highlight for me), and receiving communion. In college, survival depended on praying the Liturgy of the Hours and meeting with others to do lectio divina. Over the years, I have also benefitted from a very simple style of prayer: saying other people’s names. I simply say a name of someone I’ve loved or met or seen. If I don’t have a name, I call them to mind, their look, their feel. I sit with this person in my imagination and with God. I try to feel whatever it is that is crying out in them, what responses it is occasioning in me, what brings us together, what obstacles perhaps still divide us, what divine radiance shines through their face. This to me is prayer at its most basic and visceral. That is where all my thinking starts. The research, the writing, and the argumentation are ways for me to refine the intuitions that already begin to take shape simply when, in prayer, I say someone’s name.

    I think frequently of a very poor woman I met in a rural village of El Salvador. She had survived the civil war and lived through great hardship. To me she talked mostly about prayer. That was her response to her situation. That was the source of her strength and the manner in which her grief found expression. I think often of this woman, who prayed and thereby lived. How many of these persons are there in the world? And who in the modern academy is listening to them?

Response

The Disclosive Power of Prayer

Praying is an activity irreducible to any other. Whether faithfully practiced or entirely neglected, it shapes human experience in definitive ways. In what may seem like a surprising contention about what is at stake, Andrew Prevot suggests that the presence of violence and suffering in the world can even be an index of how we pray. The problem is that we have such a thin conception of what prayer is and does, of what it means to pray and what happens when we pray, that it is no longer immediately obvious for us what difference prayer could make in our intellectual and moral life. Thinking Prayer demonstrates that fundamental philosophical questions must be raised about the practice of prayer in the face of widespread human suffering, but it also proposes that only the act of prayer, in itself and of itself, holds promise to counteract it.

Prevot defines prayer primarily in terms of doxology. To pray, in the fullest and most active sense of the term, is to receive, offer, and desire the glory and word of God. The doxological shape of prayer has a dynamic all its own. It is a dramatic site where divine freedom and human freedom meet. Prevot expresses lucidly why it matters for theology: “The relation of divine and human freedom,” he says, “is Christian theology’s own innermost possibility” (175). Offering the widest scope for thought and action, doxology is the context in which human freedom (“integral liberation,” as Prevot also calls it) is most fully realized. Prayer matters and should matter to all of us, because apart from it entire possibilities for human existence, perhaps even those most proper to it, go unrealized.

Prevot’s far-reaching appeal to prayer may seem surprising, not least in the context of the contemporary university, which tends to ignore prayer and forget its ancient bond with knowledge. Prevot demonstrates, on the contrary, that prayer does not replace the normal demands of intellectual rigor, but adds a further set of obligations to them. Rightly understood and consistently practiced, prayer opens distinct possibilities for life that thought cannot attain on its own. At the same time and with equal rigor, he shows that prayer involves thinking, and requires it to clarify, refine, and even deepen what prayer discloses. Prayer and thought belong together, therefore, but neither is reducible to the other.

While I cannot hope to do justice here to the immense new terrain Prevot’s work opens for theology, I would like to focus my remarks on a central claim that touches on all the others and binds them together: In itself and of itself, prayer bears a power to bring into manifestation. Prayer discloses. It uncovers and manifests what, without it, remains concealed and unnoticed. Prayer “shows itself from itself,” as Prevot puts it (48). This determination of prayer brings it into affinity with phenomenology, a genre of philosophy whose first task is not merely to describe particular phenomena as they give themselves, but “givenness” itself, and what it means to be given at all. So close is their affinity that it can be difficult to see where prayer begins and phenomenology ends. Prevot is masterfully attentive to this question and offers a remarkably sophisticated way of negotiating it.

But if phenomenology is particularly suited to disclosing prayer’s contours, to saying or clarifying what it is that prayer shows of itself, then a very significant question, or set of questions, can be posed about the relationship that arises between these two modes of thought: How it is possible for such a relationship to arise at all? What is it about the categories, concepts, or methods of a phenomenological approach that makes it suitable for such a task? Is prayer the final aim or fulfillment of phenomenology? Or does prayer on the contrary qualify or limit the claims of phenomenology as merely of regional interest? In order to develop these questions further, it is necessary take brief note of where they fall within the broader context of the book. This will also allow us to highlight several other achievements of Thinking Prayer that also merit attention.

Prevot seamlessly and elegantly weaves together several discreet lines of analysis, uniting a wide spectrum of philosophical, theological, political, and spiritual texts that may seem at first glance in tension or even opposition—Heidegger, Balthasar, and the phenomenological tradition, on one side; political, liberation, and black theology, on the other. At one level, Prevot argues that these modes of thought are mutually enriching, that their methods and goals are not nearly so opposed as one might assume. It is a significant feat to demonstrate this, and Prevot does so persuasively. The polarities of orthodox or liberal, conservative or progressive, Western or non-Western do not exactly lose their meaning, but they are not the first or final terms of analysis, which remain thoroughly doxological.

Prevot’s theological acumen is exemplary in this respect. Thinking Prayer proposes that prayer, and specifically doxology, offers a ground, context, and hermeneutic through which it is possible to recognize the prayerful voice that ties these traditions together. If what one might call a doxological imperative governs Prevot’s interpretive decisions, the act of prayer itself is what unites and gathers them, both as a mode of intellectual agency, and as their shared, concrete content. This is a proposition about the methods, concepts, and norms that govern, or should govern, theological work. It deserves attention in its own right, because it demonstrates how classical theological orthodoxy can be practiced alongside, indeed makes possible, the rigorous analysis of a wide range of contemporary forms of thought.

At still another level, Prevot advances a set of diagnostic and prescriptive arguments about what he calls the “crises of modernity” (violence, poverty, oppression, alienation, degradation) and about the solution to these crises. Here the diagnostic side of the argument is less argued than one might wish, but nevertheless provocative. Prevot takes the so-called “history of Western metaphysics” as the primary culprit for the crises of violence, and on this point he seems to follow Emmanuel Levinas somewhat less critically than he approaches other authors. Prevot does not wish to ignore the concept of sin, but it does not intervene as an explanatory principle in his account. Instead, it is against the backdrop of metaphysics as a form of thought, and as a counterproposal to this thought-form, that Prevot casts his vision of doxology.

The resources of phenomenology offer Prevot a means of thinking doxologically without recourse to metaphysics, of saying what doxology makes possible for thought. But at the same time, and in return, doxology feeds a specific interpretation of phenomenology and governs choices about what forms of phenomenology are more or less suited for it. The dynamics of prayer, and not any supposedly independent or autonomous phenomenological given, remain normative for the analysis. We can fully acknowledge the theological necessity of this approach. And yet it is possible to wonder whether other interpretive decisions are possible with respect to the kind of phenomenology that is most suited for doxology, and for the doxological reading of political, liberation, and black theology that Prevot initiates.

Prevot begins aptly with Heidegger and Balthasar and shows that a kind of doxology is common between them. But whatever minimal formal autonomy Heidegger leaves open for faith, he too quickly reduces Christianity to an ontic science and fails to consider its doxological dimension. His thought is “impure,” corrupted by a kind of autochthonous inhospitality. Balthasar provides a fuller model for the kind of doxological aesthetics Prevot envisions, and it is also in dialogue with Balthasar that Prevot interprets French phenomenology after Heidegger. While he finds significant resources in the work of Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Yves Lacoste, it is Jean-Louis Chrétien that gives the fullest articulation of phenomenology inflected in a doxological idiom. Nevertheless, while these phenomenological approaches offer formal resources for doxology, they remain incomplete in themselves.

The second part of Thinking Prayer aims to address this insufficiency in a radical way by incorporating and privileging the perspectives of the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering. In a remarkable reading of James Cone, to name just one example, Prevot demonstrates that, far from constituting a peripheral form of spirituality, the prayers of lament and petition embodied and expressed in the spirituals of black slaves must become, indeed are, essential to doxology as such. They are determinative for what it means to pray. On the other hand, Prevot also argues that political, liberation, and black theologies could gain in subtlety by engaging more directly with phenomenological modes of thought, even if what they gain thereby they possess already in potentia. Prevot’s analysis here remains balanced, yet at no point gives way to vacuous neutrality. His way of integrating doxology and phenomenology is compelling and groundbreaking.

Nevertheless, it is possible to raise a question about the role reason plays in phenomenology and in doxology as Prevot presents it. Following Heidegger, and contra Husserl, Prevot seems to want to abandon the project of a phenomenological science, and even a conception of theology as a scientia. Prevot argues, for example, that a kind of epistemic ambition, and a decision to downplay “epistemologically troubling regions,” or “disconcertingly apophatic aspects” of prayer (87), leads Balthasar to overstate in some respects how far the divine mystery reveals itself. Parallel criticisms arise about the middle work of Marion, which Prevot questions for tying phenomenology too closely to “typically modern phenomenological principles of epistemic certainty” (160). It is Chrétien’s poetic mode of phenomenology, one perhaps the least enamored with reason, which Prevot finds most suitable for doxological aesthetics.

Several factors seem to explain these decisions about phenomenology. They stem first from an understandable resistance to a practice of philosophy that would be independently regulative for theology. But they also seem rooted in a somewhat wide conception of metaphysics that may encompass, and thereby risks disqualifying, “knowledge” as such. On the other hand, Prevot’s approach is rightly motivated by a conception of theology as a normative discourse flowing freely from the divine logos (even while, as Prevot says, the cries of the poor and of those in solidarity with them can nevertheless influence divine freedom). And the preference that must be given to the poor and those who suffer does qualify the enterprise of knowledge. What good does it do me to achieve a correct description of the experience of prayer, or even to pray, all the while ignoring the plight of my neighbor who is suffering? No faithful account of Christian doxology could admit such a neglect of charity. “First be reconciled to your brother,” Jesus tells the crowd, “then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:24).

And yet a difficult question remains about the specific manner in which theological norms come into contact with philosophy. The possible danger of this approach, be it ever so slight, even unapparent, is that it models a vision of doxology in a way that can seem somewhat inhospitable to reason. Here, a longer discussion about the meaning and abiding significance of “modernity” would be worth having, but for our present purposes it is worthwhile to remain focused on the place of rationality within post-metaphysical doxological theology. Is it not, at least in part, because God reveals Godself as reasonable that the divine overture is not violent, but recognizable as desirable and as desired, and as capable of free reception and offering?

At the same time, throughout Thinking Prayer one finds a preference for the “concrete” and “historically rooted” over the abstract or ideal. Perhaps these polarities are overladen. One of the ways phenomenology offers an advance beyond idealism is that it forges new categories for thought starting from what gives itself, from the “concrete.” A phenomenologically rigorous theology can privilege concrete historical circumstances, the real lives and real suffering of real people, without framing the reasons for this preference in opposition to rational, or even transcendental aims or arguments. This does not mean that responsibility or hospitality must be subordinated to a rationalist scheme or argument. But it does mean that the imperative of hospitality and the fact of my responsibility do not cut against my reason or my freedom, but call upon them, appeal to them, and condition them.

Prevot’s argument can seem to tend in more apophatic direction than it wishes to at face value. A “comprehensive system of theological knowledge,” he says, “is not even something that one can any longer reasonably desire” (324). At a purely descriptive level, one might say the theological doxology advanced here is a kind of fundamental theology in an un-apologetic mode. It does not aim to persuade of the truth of any theological proposition, but nevertheless does make theological claims and, at least in general terms, offers recommendations for action, which it takes to be normative, both theologically and ethically. It is not a question of the orthodoxy of the approach, which gives voice to doxology in a way that is cogent and indispensable. Rather, it is a question of how theology as a discipline of both faith and knowledge proceeds in response to the modern situation of reason.

It is not the least achievement of phenomenology to show that the autonomy of reason can be qualified. But to be qualified is not to be abolished, for in that case, the paradoxical result is that ethical imperatives become normative without being rational. At issue here, perhaps, is the way in which divine and human freedom meet in prayer, and at the limit, the theology and phenomenology of incarnation. If my obligation to alleviate the suffering of others remains imperative, my response to the divine initiative nevertheless remains free. In carrying out this imperative, it is not I who incarnate the Word in my flesh by my action or struggle, not even in the most ascetic of practices. If the Word moves me to suffer with those who suffer, our mutually interacting freedoms are not mutually exogenous. If I am deaf to the cry of the poor, it is the Word in them I no longer hear.

How my deafness can be turned to hearing is now an open question, and Andrew Prevot has brought it into relief with his excellent new book. If my remarks offer him anything of value, then my hope is that it will be only to advance what he has already done and said.

 

  • Andrew Prevot

    Reply

    Reply to Karl Hefty

    I want to begin by thanking Karl Hefty deeply for his very rich and nuanced reading of my book. Of the many points that he highlights, I especially appreciate his particular focus on the role of phenomenology, which is very central to the whole project. (I am not surprised, given his many impressive works on Michel Henry!)

    Hefty raises several very important questions about this theme: “But if phenomenology is particularly suited to disclosing prayer’s contours, to saying or clarifying what it is that prayer shows of itself, then a very significant question, or set of questions, can be posed about the relationship that arises between these two modes of thought: How it is possible for such a relationship to arise at all? What is it about the categories, concepts, or methods of a phenomenological approach that makes it suitable for such a task? Is prayer the final aim or fulfillment of phenomenology? Or does prayer on the contrary qualify or limit the claims of phenomenology as merely of regional interest?”

    I address many of these questions in chapter 3, but I am sure that I do not settle them entirely. Nonetheless, let me attempt merely to restate my basic position as concisely as possible. I contend that phenomenology finds its fulfillment in certain sorts of doxological contemplation that are receptive to a range of phenomenal experiences, including prayerful encounters with the glory and word of God insofar as these are hidden and revealed through phenomena. By the same token, this doxological contemplation surpasses any mode of phenomenology that would, because of dubitable methodological requirements that are supposed to produce indubitability, preemptively exclude such contemplation or restrict the sorts of phenomena that it is able to welcome. Thus I refuse the disjunctive alternative that separates Hefty’s last two questions above. Instead, I maintain that thinking prayer both fulfills and delimits phenomenology. It fulfills the intellectual openness to whatever is disclosed, even if mysteriously, which one finds in the phenomenological tradition more than in other rival philosophical traditions. At the same time, it delimits and surpasses any formulation of phenomenology that would commit it to a non-doxological or non-theological rule about what can appear and how to receive such a donation.

    As a mere matter of historical fact, it is interesting to note how many phenomenologists have thought about prayer and understood their own ways of thinking to be somehow indebted to prayer (even Heidegger deserves credit for this). It is also interesting to note how many theologians have turned to phenomenology in hopes of reconnecting their intellectual labors with the living practice of faith and worship (in addition to Balthasar, one may think of Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Ellacuría, and many others in this regard). I do not know whether I can adequately explain this history of entanglements through a substantive account of the inner connection between phenomenology and theology (qua thinking prayer), but if I were to try, I would perhaps begin by pointing to a shared respect for the mysteriousness of what is given and a shared concern about the dangers of a philosophical subjectivity that wants to establish conceptual parameters for this givenness before it is received and appreciated on its own terms. If tension remains in this relationship between phenomenology and theology, it is because many Christian thinkers such as myself want to let the contemplation of God in glory and word figure prominently in it, whereas others (some perhaps also Christian) want to use phenomenology mainly as a bulwark against dogmatism—which is one noble intention behind the classic Husserlian demand for rational certainty in one’s phenomenological assertions, as well as behind Dominique Janicaud’s critique of the “theological turn.”

    Most phenomenology that I read has elements that make it thoughtful and reasonable. Usually some good arguments are provided for characterizing a phenomenon or a type of experience in one way rather than another. But I cannot think of a single example that I would consider to have met the supposed criterion of objective, apodictic knowledge. There is too much mystery and unknowability in the phenomena themselves and too much contingent and contestable linguistic and historical mediation in their interpretation to convince me that any given account, however thoughtful or reasonable, is an instance of pure, uncontestable reason exercising itself. Previously agreed upon methods and principles (such as those of Husserl) cannot save us from the fact that our thinking is always situated in excesses and in concrete variables that make it questionable. Nevertheless, I am convinced that an effort to think rigorously (and I am fine with saying also “reasonably”) in these circumstances is important, for both epistemic and moral reasons.

    Hefty is right to point out that the host of questions surrounding metaphysics in modernity is a crucial part of my discussion of theology and phenomenology. However, I do want to nuance one or two of his points a bit. He writes: “Prevot takes the so-called ‘history of Western metaphysics’ as the primary culprit for the crises of violence, and on this point he seems to follow Emmanuel Levinas somewhat less critically than he approaches other authors. Prevot does not wish to ignore the concept of sin, but it does not intervene as an explanatory principle in his account. Instead, it is against the backdrop of metaphysics as a form of thought, and as a counterproposal to this thought-form, that Prevot casts his vision of doxology.”

    Although it is true that I explore certain connections between metaphysics and violence throughout the book, I also insist that a clear distinction between them should be preserved. They are two crises, not one (25). A practice of thinking prayer that is really a loving interaction of divine and creaturely freedoms will have postmetaphysical and counterviolent features. Though sometimes interrelated, these features are not the same. It is true that I do not discuss “sin” very explicitly or thoroughly. Nonetheless, if there is a near synonym for it in my book, it would be “violence,” not “metaphysics.”

    To the extent that “metaphysics” names a (to my mind implausible) claim to rational certainty regarding being as such and as a whole grounded in the self-transparency of the philosophical subject, it is very much in danger of a kind of conceptual idolatry that can be sinful and that can make one’s thinking inhospitable to the glory and word of God and inhospitable to phenomena, persons, and groups that give themselves in ways that resist certain regnant ontological frameworks. To this extent, “metaphysics” remains a very theologically and ethically perilous discourse. But I also argue that we are indebted to the metaphysical tradition for the important concept of analogy (75–83) and for a sense of the wonder of being which borders on prayer (65). I likewise acknowledge dangers in various forms of postmetaphysical thinking, especially of the purely deconstructive variety. A lot depends on how exactly one seeks to overcome metaphysics.

    To be sure, a lengthier discussion of Levinas, including clarifications about where I would precisely agree or disagree with him would be worthwhile. I admittedly let my discussions of Heidgger, Caputo, Marion, Dussel, and others do a lot of this work for me. The result is an encounter that some may find too indirect. But I would refer readers at least to one footnote (358n9), which indicates that I do not accept Levinas’s proposals uncritically.

    Hefty’s central concern about my book—and I think it is a very good point of discussion that warrants more thought on my part and perhaps among my readers—is about the role that reason plays or does not play in postmetaphysical doxological theology. He writes: “The possible danger of this approach, be it ever so slight, even unapparent, is that it models a vision of doxology in a way that can seem somewhat inhospitable to reason. Here, a longer discussion about the meaning and abiding significance of ‘modernity’ would be worth having, but for our present purposes it is worthwhile to remain focused on the place of rationality within post-metaphysical doxological theology. Is it not, at least in part, because God reveals Godself as reasonable that the divine overture is not violent, but recognizable as desirable and as desired, and as capable of free reception and offering?”

    In response to the precise question about God’s self-revelation as reasonable, I must say that I largely agree. Doxology, as I understand it, depends on receiving God as logos, and this means not only through historical languages but also through the modes of rigorous thinking (reasoning, if one likes) that they make possible. Discursive rationality may not be able to contain the divine glory in its sublime, excessive fullness, but we may find some consolation in the idea that God is given not only as glory but also as word, that is, through an act of communication that wants to be understood, and that even divine glory shows itself to some extent as beauty (i.e., as form and order). The kind of reason that God gives us and that we can receive in order better to receive God is not, however, identical to the sorts of technical calculation or metaphysically overdetermined explanation and analysis that have refused any constitutive relation with prayer.

    The more challenging question for me is what I think about the modern idea of an autonomous or independent reason. This might be one way to reframe the topic of secularity, which I discuss throughout (see especially 19–20). As a first attempt at an answer, I would say that one must first clarify: independent of what? If we are talking about a kind of reason that could operate independently of Christian revelation, or more precisely independently of the belief in Christian revelation (since there are many examples of philosophers who interpret Christian scripture and tradition without presupposing their veracity), then I would have to say that I am not categorically opposed to either of these methodological restraints, which still leave room for some sort of prayerful “natural theology” (as I suggest on p. 23). Nevertheless, I do suggest that they may leave quite a lot to be desired. If instead we are talking about a kind of reason that would operate without any positive relation with prayer whatsoever, including even prayer in the attenuated form of an openness to absolute mystery, then my resistance would be stronger, though perhaps still not total, given that some regional discussions of this or that worldly problem or phenomenon may proceed very meaningfully without bringing prayer into the mix. Secularity does not erase the possibility of reasonable thought.

    Nevertheless, if the question is precisely a theological one of understanding God, then I do insist that prayer be brought into play as a counterpart to thinking or reasoning alone. Otherwise I do not see any possibility of avoiding an idolatrous reduction of “God” to the status of conceptual idol. (Even with some outward signs of prayer, this danger may not be sufficiently avoided.) Moreover, if God has entered the discussion, then I would ask: why not investigate the concrete texts and possibilities of a religious tradition, such as Christianity, and if one believes in them to any degree, why not be honest and forthright about the ways that this belief has contributed to one’s practice of thought and prayer? Because rational certainty does not seem to be a very likely outcome of natural theology, I see no reason not to pursue revealed theology to the full. It is not really on worse footing. Indeed, this seems the more humble approach because it makes no pretense of being able to bracket or cancel out, by sheer methodological will, the deep currents of religious formation and perspectival particularity that are already at play. Nor does it impugn the rationality of those who would adopt a different point of view. In my book, I have tried to take responsibility for the Christian tradition that already shapes and gives rise to my habits of thought and prayer and to interpret it in a manner that is as hospitable to the other and as resistant to violence as possible—values which, indeed, seem central to this tradition’s best thinking and praying and also central to the best forms of modern humanism.

    If any of my constructive arguments prove persuasive to non-Christians, it will not be because these arguments have compelled their assent on pain of contradiction (the exegetical arguments are a different question). On the contrary, it will be because these readers find something reasonable and attractive in the holistic Christian vision of a prayerful way of thought and life that I have attempted to sketch. One would not be a fool to disagree with my presuppositions. Still, I trust that some may find the conclusions thought-provoking enough to reconsider the presuppositions on which they depend and to perceive them in a new light. This may still be a kind of apologetics on my part. I do not seek to offer a purely rational defense of Christianity (I am a believer and even I am not persuaded by such efforts, at least the ones I have studied). Nevertheless, I am also far from being disinterested in the question of whether reasonable Christians and non-Christians alike will find the small and large claims of this book meaningful and credible.

    In short, I want to be very clear that Thinking Prayer is not a fideistic text that would champion faith alone or even prayer alone. Rather, it is a proposal in line with the Catholic affirmation of fides et ratio, which I have parsed here in terms of prayer and thought. If Catholics since Anselm and Aquinas (and perhaps before) have recognized some value in the idea of an independent reason, their final hopes have always depended on the comingling of faith and reason in the loving contemplation of God. This latter possibility is what I have been most concerned to recover and investigate through the theorization and performance of a unified practice of thinking prayer. Moreover, if I have been hesitant to sing the praises of reason in this text, it is not because I have forgotten that it, too, is a self-disclosive gift of God through which doxology is possible. Rather, it is because I am especially concerned to contest the ways that reason has been constructed as antithetical to prayer in modernity. One can hardly say “reason” without being misunderstood to mean something that is necessarily foreign to prayer. “Thought” appeared to be a word less laden with this problematic baggage, a word that may allow the mind some critical distance from certain dubious modern assumptions about reason’s prayer-denying meaning.

    Let me end simply by thanking Karl Hefty once again for his very subtle response to my book and particularly for helping me think further about the place of reason in the midst of a postmetaphysical and phenomenological doxology. (Stay tuned for some more substantive discussion of Henry in my next major project.)

    • Karl Hefty

      Reply

      Some Further Reflections on Prayer

      I would like to take this further occasion to express my solidarity with you and with your book, and not only with its argument, but also with the deep wells of personal experience and prayer from which it flows. Your additional remarks offered here have clarified many issues well. It is true, as you say, that one can hardly mention “reason” without conjuring up the many historical instances in which the term has been misused and abused. And it is true that the very idea of reason can often seem, by definition, antithetical to prayer, even if theology at its best wants to resist such an opposition.

      Before opening up one or two points for further reflection, I would simply say that I am in wide agreement with what you have said in these remarks—with respect to the limits of natural theology, with respect to the problems of calculative or metaphysically over-determined reason, about the dangers of conceptual idolatry, about the simple theological impossibility of understanding God on the basis of reason alone, and about the radical difference between rational arguments, inferences, or deductions, and acts of faith, reception, and praise. Your work clears the air of many misconceptions about both faith and prayer in these and other areas.

      In fact, your argument makes it possible for us to ask new questions, and they do deserve further exploration, I think, because they are very much open. It is not so much a question about the possibilities for natural theology, or even about the limits of philosophy as such, apart from Christian revelation. Rather it is a question about the unity of truth and about the kind of boundary or boundaries that you now envision between philosophy and theology. If phenomenology can offer a clearing or an opening for doxology, this implies that something of significance is already at stake in phenomenology (as philosophy and not as theology). I am inclined to think it is not primarily a question of a theological entanglement or even openness to theology, but a question of truth itself.

      If phenomenology finds its fulfillment in prayer, and also comes up against its limitations there, this would imply that a common ground has been found that phenomenological philosophy and doxological theology share. “Givenness,” for example, is a philosophical concept, yet it is also descriptive of prayer, as you have shown so well. “To receive” or “to appreciate” givenness for itself, as you advocate, already involves conceptual and affective determinations about what it means to receive and to appreciate. Similarly, to speak of “phenomenal experiences” in prayer also involves historically particular conceptions about what it means to be a phenomenon, and therefore to be revealed or hidden, or both.

      It may seem paradoxical, but the theological import of phenomenology may risk being obscured if the results of phenomenology are interpreted as already theology (as Janicaud, for example, suggests), or bad theology (as some theologians seem inclined interpret it). Theology, of course, can and does speak of God. But when philosophy, as philosophy, speaks of God, something is at stake that is also significant—not directly for what theology is and does, but for philosophy itself—which of course can then be brought into dialogue with theology.

      It is true that current debates can tend to blur the distinction between philosophy and theology, or make it difficult to discern. But the history of phenomenology itself is a history of philosophy seeking to remove just the kinds of artificial constraints on what can be given, on what can appear, that you describe, so there are real questions as to which aspects of the critique of phenomenology that you offer in your book are primarily theological, and which are philosophical, and which are both. This is not in any way a criticism, but merely a real question about how thinking and prayer (or faith and reason) meet in this new landscape of theology (and philosophy).

      I would just add that there is a long history of a preserving a strong role for knowledge in theology, even if reason rarely has the last word, and even if (as in Augustine, for example), reason always finds itself flooded by a light it does not produce for itself. Is it possible to hold the vision of the promise of prayer that you so well describe together with a conception of theology as a form of knowledge? Perhaps this is asking too much. Thinking prayer, as you show so well, in many ways means not knowing, but rather beholding, receiving, desiring, and offering. The one who prays knows that what passes as knowledge, the interests, ambitions, projects, and diversions of everyday life, become relativized in prayer. Perhaps it is the human quest for knowledge itself that prayer places in brackets or renders relative.

      You are right that it is difficult to find an argument in philosophy that closes off conversation and ends all debate. But we do find something unusually significant at stake in the problem of the cogito, which does cut to some very basic questions about what it means to be or to think. Here again, it is not Descartes, or Husserl, or Heidegger, but Augustine who goes furthest. I see the problems that surround the question of evidence in the cogito not so much as emblematic of a penchant for a technical reason that would put restrictions on faith. Nor do I see it primarily as a matter of an independent reason that would have its own end in itself (even in Descartes it is a still question of reason in the service of faith). Rather, I see it as a set of basic problems concerning what it means to be human, concerning what it is that prayer illuminates and elevates.

      Nevertheless, not all the riches of contemplative prayer pour fourth immediately once the philosophical scene has been cleared of prejudice. And when it comes to prayer, theology does have a critical role to play vis-à-vis philosophy, since what theology is cannot be abstracted from the living history of prayer, including the very specific form it takes in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And you are also right that, with respect to philosophy, the personal histories of individual philosophers, often with “deep currents of religious formation and historical particularities,” are never far away. One may think here not only about a figure such as Nietzsche, but also a philosopher as important as Franz Brentano.

      Rather than close the circle on these reflections, I would instead return to your claim that prayer manifests itself from itself. It seems a simple point, one that may be easily overlooked, but an entire horizon is opened here. What becomes manifest in prayer cannot be achieved, discovered, or obtained by other means, whether in natural reflection, or in the myriad forms of diversion one might prefer instead. Notwithstanding the important theoretical contributions of your argument, the force of your response to the question of modernity ultimately consists in the simple, humble recommendation you make of prayer. To the many ways contemporary culture militates against contemplation, it offers a powerful form of resistance, and I hope it is only the beginning.

    • Andrew Prevot

      Reply

      Still Pondering

      Karl, many thanks for your further reply, your very kind words, and of course your probing questions. What I’m sensing in your comments is a concern about understanding what is at stake in maintaining some sort of clear distinction between philosophy (perhaps as phenomenology, as committed to knowledge, as grounded in the cogito) and theology (as Christian, as revealed, as prayerful). This is a question I have wrestled with and continue to wrestle with. The only thought I have to add at the moment is that it might be helpful to take a step back and ask what we mean by “philosophy” and “theology.” There are histories that usually inform our definitions and exemplary figures that we may identify with one or the other, but it strikes me that what we really have in these histories are many different ways of constructing philosophy and theology in relation to each other, and whether any given thinker is counted more as philosopher or as theologian doesn’t change the fact that he or she is producing discourse concerning the meaning of both and their proper relation. In that sense, every thinker in these histories is more or less playing the same game but just making different moves within it, rather than playing completely different games. So I don’t deny that a distinction can, and perhaps should, be made between philosophy and theology, but I’m also mindful of a thinking that, precisely in order to make this distinction, must in some sense transcend it. I usually favor “love of wisdom” and “discourse of God” as shorthand definitions. Can one love wisdom without any thought or word concerning the divine? Can one talk rightly of God without any desire and reverence for wisdom (or, if one likes, vision, insight)? In the final analysis, is the sort of thought th at really ought to count as philosophy, because it loves wisdom, possible without becoming a sort of thinking prayer, hence theology done right? These are questions I’m still pondering.

Response

Being Prayed For

A Comment on Thinking Prayer

Prayer—and I think only prayer—gives Christian faith its most critical and productive force. The most critical element in belief in God does not come from a political theology but fundamentally from the articulation of faith in prayer, from prayer as an act of faith.” —Edward Schillebeeckx1

Prevot’s hypothesis of thinking prayer as the neglected source of theological and spiritual resistance amid the crises of modernity is a welcome invitation to reread the writings of other theologians who have not a prayerful reputation at all. I think of the notorious theological rebel from my own context: Schillebeeckx. Both his supporters and detractors simply overlook how action and contemplation, the political and the mystical, are deeply intertwined in the work of this Dominican monk. Significantly, the title of the book out of which I quoted, Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World, is obscuring the integral sense of the Dutch original. “Gerechtigheid en liefde: Genade en bevrijding” literally translates as “Righteousness and Love: Grace and Liberation.” Hosea 12:6 serves as the book’s epigraph:

So you, by the help of your God, return,
hold fast to love and justice,
and wait continually for your God.

Postsecular readers are likely to miss the spiritual heart of his theology, and the task Schillebeeckx has in mind for political theology, which is “to safeguard prayer in a reflexive way,” by articulating how this act of faith becomes “indirectly effective” in political activity.

#prayforbrussels: Theology in Times of Terror

When I was reading Prevot’s book, my country was shocked by the terrorist attacks in Brussels, March 22. As had been the case at similar events in Paris, people were expressing their solidarity using the hashtag #prayforbrussels. This hashtag was shared by young people who do not define themselves as belonging to any religion. As a Belgian theologian I was surprised by seeing “prayer” as the first gut reaction to horror in a highly secularized context. Prevot gave me words to flesh out the questionable nature of this hashtag. What is the kind of subject that shares this hashtag? What kind of solidarity is expressed here? Where is the prayer for the thousands of innocent victims in Syria, Iraq, and other regions? And is the lack of concern about the violence that is daily reality for so many people living outside of the Western comfort zone, not at the very root of insecurity which all of a sudden emerged in our streets?

I do not want to belittle the authentic longing for peace and the impressive gulf of self-giving solidarity. Catastrophes awaken the deep desire for the common good, which is slumbering in our individualist consumer culture. Many people sensed the need for spiritual resources to resist the fear and despair in the face of crisis. The impulse #prayforbrussels was translated into spontaneous vigils and interreligious prayer services. There was even a praiseworthy attempt to widen the circle of solidarity by launching the hashtag #prayforourworld. A secularist tabloid headlined “The Whole World Is Praying for Us Today,” quoting the tweet, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (Mother Teresa).

In hindsight I have to admit there has been little reflection to think through what the event of March 22 reveals about the world we live in. Soon the Belgian media and public sphere were again the space of polarization between communities. The latest controversy was about the alleged “Islamization of Catholic schools”—in response to theologian Lieven Boeve’s suggestion to consider sharing prayer rooms among Christians and Muslims at school.

Becoming Black

I found Prevot expressing many intuitions which resonated with my own often implicit theological convictions. The only moment I felt reluctance to follow his call was when he defended James Cone’s demand that white theologians become black. Is becoming black not simply impossible for a white theologian? The very question betrays a profound asymmetry in my own theological institution. In Leuven, where we have a Centre for Liberation Theologies, we are hosting many students from the Global South. To be honest, my colleagues and I are teaching them most of the time white theologies. And it works. Our students are able to learn these theologies and appropriate them as fruitful resources for developing their own theology. Why am I not prepared to go for the reverse learning experience? We take for granted that white theology is significant for black students, but are not even considering the mirror idea that white theology as much needs black theology.

A genuine practice of mutual listening would include a reversal of roles in which, for instance, as Prevot suggests, the black doxological tradition is respected “not merely as a guest but also as a host” (322). This would involve not only a change of attitude from the European partners in the theological process, but also from our guests. Our non-European students are stimulated to learn and speak for their own people and culture, as if the ideal would consist of creating a range of particular theologies—black theology for blacks, Dalit theology for Indian Dalits, feminist theology for women, . . . Our well-intended encouragement blindly obeys the logics of representation, typical for contemporary identity politics. The net result might be the fostering of ghetto theologies and theological ghettoes. Prevot’s book is a great example of a different, boundary-breaking theology.

The journey to this more universal theology goes not by the road of transcendental introspection. Just like the hashtag #prayforourworld might remain an abstract cry, breathing an illusory universalism, Prevot holds that the only access to a truly universal prayer is by becoming black.

Here to “become black” means nothing other than to enter into the spirituality of oppressed black people, to pray and struggle with them for their freedom, to welcome their beauty as an indispensable element of Christian doxology, and—as a matter of sheer consistency—to abolish every form of “white” domination, including overt acts of violence and the more hidden dimensions of privilege and harm that are expressed “through marriage, schools, neighborhood, power, etc.” (Prevot, 321)

It is about accepting “to enter into the ‘wounded words’ (Chrétien) of the black community” (322–23), and to “share deeply in the passions, sorrows, and resilient hope of [my] black brothers and sisters” (323), to participate in their lament and praise. In a Western European context the radical conversion this involves could be provoked by the mere suggestion to substitute for a moment “black” by “Muslim.” There might be a way in which, to become a European Christian in the current crisis of violence and counter-violence, is to become Muslim in a sense analogical to Cone’s “becoming black.”

Overcoming the Incapability to Love

Back in 2008 I lived seven months of exposure to the African megacity Kinshasa. My wife and I had deliberately chosen not to live in the expat circles, but in a Congolese religious community in a poor neighborhood. The plan was to become friends with our black neighbors, but the hard reality was that I felt myself for the first time of my life a white man, to my own exasperation reproducing some neo-colonial prejudices. Part of my frustration was that our relations with our neighbors, which we intended to entertain in a spirit of mutual encounter, were often overshadowed by the hard economic inequality—“being white” turned out to mean “potential financial resources.”

But the problem was more fundamental. After I returned to the university of Leuven, a fellow researcher, Joseph Drexler-Dreis, drew my attention to a lesser-known theme in Frantz Fanon. This black intellectual saw it as his mission to fight for

the restoration of the conditions that enable us to love authentically. This is where Fanon becomes relevant within theology, and especially a theological consideration of reconciliation. A key term within Christian theology is love, but theologians often fail to consider love as a contextual notion determined by the conditions that facilitate or prohibit its realization. Fanon’s thought contests theological discourses on reconciliation that employ a theology of love that is not aware of the structures that constrain our desire and capacity for communing with others.”2

In an existential way I had become painfully aware of “decolonial theorists” insight that “coloniality,” the underlying cultural and thought structures of colonialism, did not end with political decolonization.” Like many theologians I had overlooked the fact that the underlying colonial logic persists today. My desire for reconciliation had blinded me for the reality that there are structural impediments to love, which call for a consistent decolonial praxis, seeking to restore the material and spiritual conditions that enable people to be subjects and objects of love.

In Need of Vicarious Prayer

Being in Africa made me aware of my being white. In a way it forced me to become white, i.e., to recognize my responsibility in an ongoing history of domination. Prevot indicates with Cone that I needed “to die to my anti-black ‘whiteness’ and ‘become black with God’” (321). Part of my becoming black was the concrete experience of me, a critical theologian trained at the faculty of theology of Leuven, sitting there every evening praying the rosary with orphans and other kids who were rejected by their families. The children’s love of Mother Mary also inspired them to sing songs of praise, which opened a horizon of “joyful resistance” (216) in the midst of a violent context.

In Kinshasa I found myself speechless before God, I needed their prayer, their lament and hope, their joy and trust. For me, becoming black was maybe first of all to recognize that a crucial part of my faith, my trust and hope in God, were stored in the prayers and songs of those young black children. I experienced a kind of listening similar to what I encountered in the commentary of Henk Leene on the third song of the suffering servant (Isa 50:4–9). Identifying himself with the people listening to Isaiah’s song—the people of God in exile wherever they happen to live—Leene writes:

We are no longer able to hope but merely to hear the song of someone else’s hope. We ourselves are no longer able to trust in God, but the message reaches us about someone who trusts. At the very moment that we allow this strange voice to speak, this voice of his suffering servant (Is 50:10), we trust nevertheless, although we don’t. Our trust has assumed the form of listening to a song. In this way the song becomes our salvation. Tired though we are, we experience God’s saving power in and through the song.”3

Leene explains that the function of the song is the mediation of trust. The servant trusts for us. His or her witness offers refuge and support to the hopeless. We, who listen, are carried by his or her vicarious trust through the night until the day dawns and their resilience has grown so that we ourselves themselves become part of the chain of suffering servants.

Next to Prevot’s critical retrieval of petitionary prayer, I would like to draw attention to intercessory prayer. My own prayer experience in Kinshasa led me to face the fact that the “courage to pray” (Metz) implies sometimes the surrender to let oneself be “prayed for.” Prevot refers to Metz’s call for a mystical-theological practice of prayer, “in which one would ‘pray not only for the poor but with them’” (198, italics mine). I would add, in a radical spirit of poverty, that often I do not know how to pray as I ought, but have to accept the black spirituals, those great “songs of the Spirit,” to pray in me, for me, “to intercede with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 6:28).

 


  1. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World, Collected Works 7, (Bloomsbury, 2014 [orig., 1977]), 813

  2. Joseph Drexler-Dreis, “Decoloniality as Reconciliation,” Concilium: International Review of Theology (2013): 115–22.

  3. Quoted in Yves De Maeseneer, “The Victim as Prophet? Isaiah’s Songs of the Suffering Servant Read in Kinshasa,” in A. Dillen & A. Vandenhoeck (eds.), Prophetic Witness in World Christianities Rethinking Pastoral Care and Counseling (Münster: Lit-verlag, 2011), 185–92, 189.

  • Andrew Prevot

    Reply

    Reply to Yves De Maeseneer

    I am grateful to have this very apt quote from Schillebeeckx. He certainly could have been included among the prayerful thinkers in my book. Perhaps one day I will write an essay about the ways that prayer shapes his particular approach to a critical, political theology, as it does somewhat differently in the works of Metz, Ellacuría, Cone, and others.

    I have been reflecting on Yves De Maeseneer’s thoughtful and very moving response to my book while still feeling stunned by the news of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay-friendly nightclub in Orlando, Florida. This massacre took place in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12. Public statements about this horrific event, which left forty-nine dead, have included many promises of “thoughts and prayers,” whether with or for the victims and their families. There have also been well-justified demands for collective action that is not limited to the perhaps often merely gestural acts of thought and prayer. Some have marked their responses on social media with a #prayfororlando hashtag, which seems to function very much like the #prayforbrussels hashtag that De Maeseneer mentions. Even in predominantly secular societies, shocking acts of cruelty and violence seem to elicit an almost immediate prayerful response. There may be something heartfelt and sincere about this sort of reaction, but one may also suspect it of being hollow and ineffective. These hashtags seem to occupy an ambiguous place between the genuine expression of communal mourning and the emptiness of a virtual, almost mechanical ritual. And yet I really do believe that thoughts and prayers, and above all a rigorous practice of thinking prayer, where the two come together, should be pursued in such cases and that the right and best sorts of collective action depend on such a foundation.

    Like the bombings in Brussels, the Orlando massacre is an incident that both demands and defies thought. It demands thought because we must seek to understand how and why it happened, the many factors that were involved: permissive gun laws maintained through the money-backed political influence of the NRA; hatred toward LGBT persons, persons of color, and immigrants; violent distortions of Islam and the violent spread of Islamophobia; US wars which are supposed to be about defeating terrorism but which are largely motivated by US imperial interests which terrorize in their own ways; questions about individual and family histories, psychologies, and social pathologies, and so on. At the same time, such a wanton destruction of life—in this case, the bloody desecration of a safe-haven, a place of welcome and hospitality for persons too often judged and mistreated in other contexts—must be recognized as a strictly unthinkable and unspeakable act. The “think pieces” which begin to slot it into this or that prepackaged narrative often seem to know and to say far too much about it, with too much feigned certainty, instead of keeping vigil and respecting the silence of those who have been lost. A real horror—and this was one—can neither be comprehended nor ignored.

    When thought fails in the face of evil and disaster, that very failure may become an inducement to pray. It may prompt one to cry out from the depths of suffering and unknowing. To whom does one cry? And what is the “content” of such prayer? What sort of speech is it, if it is speech? There may be lament: a word or a wail of anger. There may also be requests for healing, for an end to violence, and for the eternal repose of the deceased. Prayer may simply be a silent sitting with the events, a beholding of images of murdered faces, a feeling of desires and pains deep within. A difficult question—and this is the sort of question that I struggle with in many parts of my book—is whether Christian praise can continue after such events and, if so, under what conditions. I argue that, if one reserves such praise only for times when one has managed mostly to forget or distance oneself from the horrors of the world, then it will be counterfeit; indeed, it will be idolatrous. It will be little more than an encomium to a false god whose only purpose is to soothe the already quite comfortable. If doxology is possible at all, it must be possible while confronting head-on the multilayered violence that badly wounds our world. Only a doxology that finds expression in acts of compassion and justice, and lets itself be inhabited by the anguished cries of the victims of history, has any hope of meeting this requirement.

    To become black, in Cone’s sense, is to let oneself be inhabited by the songs and struggles of the slaves. I like the way de Maeseneer connects this experience with the practice of intercessory prayer. I think he is right to suggest that sometimes one can only pray well by letting oneself be filled by the prayers of another. I want to thank him especially for sharing his poignant reflections on his time in Kinshasa, his desire to avoid colonial power dynamics, the frustration of their apparent inescapability, and the feeling of a need not only to pray with those in suffering but also to receive their prayers and to let oneself be “prayed for.”

    De Maeseneer raises an interesting question about the generalizability of this way of becoming the afflicted other through welcoming their prayers and letting oneself be welcomed into them. In certain contexts, might there be a need for Christians to “become Muslim” or for straight and cisgender persons to “become queer” in some analogous manner? Cone’s use of the broader term “the oppressed” indicates his potential support for these other conceivable metamorphoses of the self in prayer. I am generally attracted to the possibility of sharing in diverse spiritualities, to the point of being transformed by them, particularly as part of a solidaristic struggle against oppression and in pursuit of greater love and hospitality. At the same time, I think it is very important to attend carefully to the concrete circumstances and particular challenges and dangers of each case: for instance, threats of distortion and appropriation by the more powerful discourse, difficulties particular to interreligious dialogues that include doctrinal conflicts, the ways that genders and sexualities involve very personal questions about each precious and unique body and its acts of love, and countless other relevant considerations.

    In this world of violence, I am often at a loss for what to say. It is not uncommon that I find myself walking outside, in the sunshine, feeling contemplative yet troubled. Before the words form on my lips I begin to hear in my mind’s ear the timeworn refrain of a spiritual, “Go down, Moses, / way down in Egypt land. / Tell old Pharaoh, / let my people go!” I think about contemporary Egypt, the Arab Spring, the ongoing catastrophe in Syria, the person who at that moment approaches me on the street asking for money, the manicured lawn beside me which leads up to an oversized mansion, which stands just blocks away from a row of boarded up houses, and I think of the hovels I have seen in other parts of the world and the people who live in them, and I do not know if the prayerful song that is still repeating almost involuntarily inside me will help, but it is the echo of another’s desperate longing that has become my own—for liberation in who knows what form—and it is the basis for whatever hope I have left in a better future for this good creation.

    Many thanks to Yves De Maeseneer for prompting me to think further about all of these issues! I am very happy to have received such a generous and generative response.

Response

Theological Hospitality and the Language of Crisis

As a theologian who spends probably too much time contemplating what it means to write theology, I couldn’t help but read Prevot’s tour de force Thinking Prayer as a book not primarily about prayer, but about theology: what it thinks it is, what it really is, what it could be. Prevot writes that theology, when it is properly rooted in prayer and doxology, has the potential to become “an intellectual practice that aspires to glorify and contemplate the divine well-spring of eternal freedom and love without becoming too satisfied with its own conceptual formulations or impervious to the horrors of reality” (332). I want to write that kind of theology.

Considering the potential of prayer in response to crisis through thinkers as diverse as Heidegger, Balthasar, Chrétien, Metz, Gutiérrez, and Cone, Prevot’s work crosses boundary lines of theological discourse that, due to educational silos and the prevalent practice of theological inhospitality and judgment, are not always easy to cross. I’m sure this has all already been said. But it’s worth noting that this boundary crossing is exciting not just because it is unusual but also because it incites a creativity of thought and opens up a broader discourse about prayer to which an unusually diverse group of theological thinkers have been invited. We find ourselves at the table with each other. This kind of theological hospitality changes the way we think about things. It can change the way we see and hear things that otherwise appear to be utterly familiar. I want to write that kind of theology.

Following Prevot’s narrative for a moment, prayer is in a precarious position in light of the crises of modernity: its viability challenged by the rise of secularity, its intelligibility challenged by the crisis of Western metaphysics, its integrity challenged by global structures and individual acts of violence (5, 19–28). Yet prayer is not just the helpless victim of these crises, it is also Prevot’s hopeful response. Prevot helpfully summarizes:

Prayer resituates and thereby significantly qualifies the meaning of secularity by affirming humanity’s critical freedom and locating it in interactive relation with God; prayer opens a doxological path beyond the potentially nihilistic trajectory of metaphysics without losing the holistic sense of wonder and keen theoretical insight that have been generative of this tradition; and prayer inspires liberative movements of personal and social transformation in resistance against the violent structures of the world, while awaiting God’s definitive victory over them.” (6)

This thread of prayer-as-response-to-modern-crises is woven through a fascinating discussion of some power-house thinkers of the modern era. Prevot patiently draws out a doxological response to the challenges of Western metaphysics through conversation with Heidegger, Balthasar, and Chrétien; and a spiritual response to the many forms of worldly violence through conversation with Metz, Gutiérrez, and Cone (in both cases, among others). This culminates in Cone’s theology, where the “strong and sanctified and Spirit-filled songs of the slaves” are taken not just as an important instance of black doxology but as a framework for theological thinking as such (325). More than just a statement critiquing the sidelining of black spirituality in contemporary theological discourse, Prevot is also making an epistemological claim. If contemporary theologies and spiritualities wish to fruitfully respond to the crises of the modern era, they would do well to center the voices of those whose lives were witnesses to the horrific outcomes of whiteness—both its metaphysical idolatry and its structural, cultural and individual violences. If theology wishes to faithfully speak of God, then theology must be the kind of thought that does not just arise from any prayer, but the kind of thought that arises from “prayer haunted by the memory of the slaves and their divinely sustained and divinely ordained desires for freedom” (280–81). These “wounded words” (323, cf. Chrétien) are not incidental elements of theological history, they are the “interpretive framework that knits everything together and, moreover, raises our understanding of the significance of prayer to a higher level” (12).

This is a creative and exciting work and I am fully on board with what I take to be at the heart of Prevot’s proposal: that the spiritual and theological hospitality that can be inspired by prayer can seriously challenge both conceptual idols and violent structures of injustice. In light of the theological hospitality already offered by Prevot, I would like to offer two sets of questions that arose for me as I worked through this text that, I think, are not unrelated. The gathering themes for these questions are theological hospitality and the language of crisis.

Theological Hospitality

In Prevot’s writing, theologians are regularly described as “prayerful” or “not prayerful enough.” Doxology is described, at times, as “pure” or “impure.” To give a few examples, Cone’s thought is described as “profoundly prayerful” (12); Heidegger’s thought is “more prayerful than most of its modern predecessors,” “(something like) prayerful thinking,” and yet, “by Christian standards, not prayerful enough” (37), and is “an instructive example of doxological impurity” (37); Balthasar’s thought is described as being “deeply saturated with prayer” (109); liberation theology, Prevot states, “can take a variety of forms, some of which (e.g., Dussel and Segundo) are underdeveloped or problematic with respect to the task of thinking prayer, others of which (e.g., Gutiérrez, Boff, and Ellacuría) more adequately perform this task in continuity with the best of the Christian doxological tradition” (274). Despite serious discussion in the text of what prayer is, of what doxology is, I still at times found it hard to know what these judgments about this wide range of thinkers might mean. What is the statement being made implicitly underneath the naming of thought to be “prayerful” or “not prayerful enough,” and the naming of doxology to be “pure”’ or “impure”?

Let us return to Prevot’s definition of prayer from the introductory chapter. Prayer is “the love-oriented interaction of Trinitarian and creaturely freedoms in the context of our severely damaged world” (3), the fulcrum of divine-human communication that drives prayerful thought (theology) and prayerful life (spirituality). Where some might object that this does not line up with a “simpler and more exact meaning of prayer as the making of a request,” Prevot argues that prayer has long been thought, theologically, to be both more specific and less restricted than a purely petitionary understanding would suggest (13–14). Prayer is specifically addressed to God and prayer actually encompasses a much broader range of interaction between human beings and God than simple petition. However, I wonder whether there is another simplistic notion of prayer that is getting a bit lost here. The way the terms “prayer” and “doxology” are used in practice often refer to (for want of a better word) “external” acts of prayer and worship—perhaps participation in liturgy, personal acts of spoken and contemplative prayer, etc. But the terms also implicitly point to something more personal, something more hidden—the mystery of each individual’s relationship with God. While it seems reasonable to make judgments about the former, it seems troubling to make judgments about the latter.

While I remain confident that Prevot does not intend this level of judgment, and though it perhaps seems particularly inhospitable to suggest that this is even being implied in this work, I do think that there is a hidden danger in the way that these terms are being used. Is it possible that by defining prayer and doxology so particularly, something important is being lost in our usage of these terms? When we talk about whether someone’s thought is “prayerful enough” and whether someone’s doxology is “pure” or “impure,” I think this raises red flags. If the judgment is that certain ways of thinking about either prayer or doxology do or do not line up with Prevot’s proposed understanding of prayer and doxology, then this is one kind of statement. To say that someone’s thought is not adequately grounded in a life of prayer and doxology is another kind of statement—one that makes an implicit connection between the existence of practices of prayer and worship and right theology. I find the latter implication not only impossible to judge, but also rather disconcerting (more on this in the next section of this response).

This is magnified, I think, by the very definition of prayer being used by Prevot: as that divine-human communication that is directed according to divine, other-welcoming, love. To leave a space of no-judgment in the way we relate to and interact with our perceptions of other people’s relationships with God is a basic act of other-welcoming hospitality that I think is encouraged by Prevot’s notion of prayer. It is a hospitality to the humanity of the other person and a hopeful belief in the fundamental hospitality of God to that other person, too. This is not a hospitality that is averse to critique—as Prevot notes in his discussion of Cone’s theology, hospitality done well is hospitality that makes space for honest critique (322). This is a critical hospitality that is fuelled by hope in a God who desires and works for transformation, for new life, even in the most despairing of circumstances.

Prevot highlights the need for openness to the spirit, to that which we do not yet know, in order to be faithful theologians (29). He also acknowledges that he shares a commitment to “‘right’ doctrine” that places him in line with Radical Orthodoxy (28), allowing him both to say that liberation theologians who are more “adequate” in terms of thinking prayer are those who are in continuity with the Christian tradition (274), and that “the purest and most Christologically focused thinkers of doxology will tend to be the most reliable” (24). My first question, then, is about how these aspects of faithful theological reflection are to be balanced. How do we balance the need for openness—because we do not know what we do not know—and the desire for right doctrine that is in line with tradition?

It is clear that Prevot’s desire in this work is to carefully critique each thinker, to take them on their own terms, and to be faithful to both those aspects of their work that are useful and those that are not (for a beautiful summary of some of the most positive aspects of each thinker he engages, see p. 324). This is a hospitality that embodies hopeful critique. My worry is that the ability to name thinkers as “prayerful” or “not prayerful enough,” and their doxology as “pure” or “impure,” betrays a small crack in this critical hospitality. A crack that reopens the dormant desire for boundaries that can lead to exclusions, of “right” doctrine that can lead to closed conversations. Perhaps Prevot is more hopeful than I find myself to be about the possibility of humanity to avoid the reproduction of these exclusive judgments once they have been recognized as such. Perhaps I have been a part of too many theological conversations in predominantly white Christian communities that all too easily make judgments about the integrity of the faith of another person or group of people to the extent of the exclusion of their experiences, voices, and concerns. In these conversations, I take this kind of exclusion not only as a result of their idea of what counts as theology, prayer, and worship, but as a result of the way in which these practices of exclusion are sanctified by these very theological judgments. My first question then, invites more conversation about what a critical theological hospitality requires in order to be both critical and also hospitable. Are there limits to the judgments we can and should make about the prayer, thought, or spirituality of other people? If so, what are these limits? If not, how do we continue to cultivate an openness to the necessary critique that comes to us from other voices and perspectives while also retaining a real concern for theological orthodoxy?

The Language of Crisis

The predominant framework of Prevot’s discussion of prayer is that of crisis. The viability, intelligibility, and integrity of prayer is challenged by the crises of modernity: the rise of secularity, the crisis of Western metaphysics, and the crisis of spiritual, cultural, and physical violence (5, 19–28). What is particularly helpful about this framework is that it enables a constructive evaluation of the usefulness of a broad range of thinkers as responses to (and perhaps also creators and perpetuators of) these crises. My second question revolves around this language of the crises of modernity. How does this language—and framework—of crisis shape the resulting analysis and conversation? Are we really living in a particular time of crisis? If so, are these crises particular to our age? I don’t ask these questions to be facetious. I by no means intend to undermine the fundamentally critical challenge that the metaphysical, spiritual, cultural, social, and physical violence of our time puts to our generation, and to theology in particular. In fact, I ask these questions about the appropriateness of the framework of modern crisis for this conversation because I want to take the challenge of structural and individual sin and injustice with utmost seriousness.

I worry that the language of modern crisis leads to a discourse in which the problem and the solution are too easily identified. Perhaps a better way of putting this is to say that my concern with the language of crisis is that it encourages that desire in us to all too quickly find reassurance for ourselves by defining the problem and identifying a solution. Non-doxological, post-metaphysical thought, and (non-prayerful) secular thought, for example, implicitly become a part of the problem. Non-doxological, post-metaphysical thought (of which something like social theory might be an example) is not dismissed (22), neither is secular thought (science, the humanities, etc.) (10), but Prevot argues that if they are to be useful to theology, they can only be so insofar as they do not challenge a fundamentally prayerful orientation (32). Prevot writes, “An interdisciplinary approach, in which the resources of history, psychology, sociology, and other areas of scholarship might be employed freely, in whatever ways they prove useful or necessary, can be entirely incorporated into this unified theological and spiritual space, so long as these other disciplines are not used in a way that contradicts the basically prayerful orientation of this space” (32). This suggests that there is something about prayer—about our understanding of this kind of prayerful orientation—that is beyond critique (or at least beyond a critique that does not appear through prayerfully oriented means). Prevot agrees that prayer, if it wishes to be faithful, must allow itself to be “interrupted by suffering” (216), but can this interruption extend to forms of thought that appear un-prayerful? Can “secular” critique undermine our understandings of prayer, theology, and spirituality in ways that are theologically necessary? I believe we must at least remain open to this possibility.

The language of modern crisis also encourages our desire to find (or be reassured by) a solution. The solution, for Prevot, or at least a significant aspect of it, is thinking prayer. Prevot writes that prayer, at its best, works against violence by providing “unparalleled training in the ways of hospitality and responsibility,” through its ability to “cultivate subjects who are prepared to resist unjust structures of power and who are likewise capable of understanding why this resistance is necessary regardless of the costs” (25–26). Through regular prayer, Christians “learn to see who we are, what we have done, and what we are meant to do,” offering us “a lesson regarding loving receptivity to the other, while simultaneously granting us a disambiguating perspective on our obligations, and perhaps serious shortcoming, in the midst of this violent world” (27). Before I go any further, let me just state that I want all of these things—for myself and for the world. Let me also state that I believe prayer to be a crucial aspect of Christian life and human sanctification. However, I can’t escape the thought that it is, all to often, those who pray regularly who are also the ones who perpetrate and reinforce violence in the world.

Prevot acknowledges the deep distortions of prayer that have been a part of so many of the most horrific acts of structural and individual violence that our culture has known: “Baptized and believing Christians who prayed to a nominally Christian God have murdered Jews, brutalized indigenous communities, let the poor starve and die, and sold shackled black bodies to the highest bidder” (27). Prevot calls this the “idolatrous and violent falsification of prayer” and argues that “such distortions need to be identified and combated with great urgency, wherever and however they occur” (28). Moreover, he states that the reality of the human distortion of prayer does not imply that prayer itself is the problem. I agree that the horrific reality of the sins of confessing Christians does not mean that prayer is the problem. But I do think that it should make us pause before offering prayer as the solution. Not because I don’t believe that God really reveals things to human beings in prayer, but because I know all too well the very human propensity to stubbornly refuse to see what is being revealed, and—more than this—to think that they actively hear that which justifies violence and suffering.

Perhaps, once again, Prevot’s assessment of humanity is more positive than my own. Perhaps I am bound by my situation as a white thinker in a predominantly white and privileged academic space and church community. For white Christians, prayer and “right doctrine” has long walked hand-in-hand with horrific acts and structures of violence. Prayer and “right doctrine” has not just been blind to these acts and structures of violence, it has called them right and holy. This is not just about the large abuses of power, acts of exploitation, and de-humanization that (I hope) we can all now agree are not of God. I’m not directly talking about slavery or Jim Crow or the KKK, although this thought process is informed by these realities. I am most concerned about those ways in which we participate in ongoing structural and individual acts of violence in ways that we appear to be entirely oblivious to. Some examples might include the many-layered ways in which people participate in white privilege; our perpetuation of unsafe working conditions through our uncritical consumerism; the ways in which our working, housing, and worship choices perpetuate economic and racial disconnects.

I worry that the language of modern crisis, in the way it encourages the desire for reassurance that comes from easily identified problems and solutions, can both isolate us from critical challenges arising from thought which has been deemed to be “secular” or “non-doxological,” and also make us too comfortable with the idea that prayer itself is the appropriate solution. My concern does not arise from a disagreement about what I think prayer is in its ideal form, but from a feeling that the only way we begin to do differently in this regard is not just to pray but to open ourselves to the critique of our prayerfulness, of our “right doctrine.” This is a critique that may well be given to us in prayer, but which may not be received until we are willing to be confronted by the voices which challenge us at the most foundational, theological, spiritual, prayerful level.

I don’t think Prevot and I disagree on this. I think this is why Prevot thinks theology can learn so much from Cone and why he believes that theology needs to recognize the doxological wisdom of the slaves as itself an “interpretive framework” for theological thinking (12). The theological critique of both metaphysics and violence that comes from the centering of the songs of the slaves is both necessary and also effective not just because these are songs that arise in situations of great suffering, but because this suffering reaches to the heart of ongoing, far-reaching, and deeply complex structures and acts of violence and suffering in our current age. Theology and prayer find their critique in these voices not just because they are challenged by human suffering, but because in these voices they are critiqued by the suffering in which they are complicit. I don’t think Prevot and I fundamentally disagree on this. I do think that I am more concerned about the potential of Christian communities to refuse to engage the interruption from suffering as the necessary critique of their theology, prayer, and spirituality. I think I am so concerned about prayer as the problem that I’m not ready to admit prayer as the solution. Looking at it from where we stand, we might decide to call this problematic prayer “distorted” prayer or “falsified” prayer, but as it happens in our own lives and communities, and as far as we know, it is just prayer. And that is the problem.

My second question is, then, given that it is (distorted) prayer, (falsified) theology, and (counterfeit) spirituality that “continually produces the sorrow of the world” (28), how can we build a discourse of prayer-as-solution that takes this danger seriously?

  • Andrew Prevot

    Reply

    Reply to Gillian Breckenridge

    I am very grateful for Gillian Breckenridge’s generous and challenging reading of Thinking Prayer. This is the sort of review that helps me see better what I was striving to think, understand, and propose in this book, as well as what questions and “cracks” it leaves open. Breckenridge and I have a broad basis of agreement. She says more than once, “I want to write that kind of theology,” referring to the sort of theology that I am endeavoring to describe and promote by bringing together a host of different theological thinkers for whom prayerful response to the crises of modernity is a central motif. Our agreement even extends somewhat to the worries that Breckenridge voices about my book. To some extent, I share these worries too, although I think they reflect general problems affecting constructive thought today. Moreover, a practice of theology as thinking prayer continues to be the primary way that I would seek to address them.

    Let me try to put these concerns into my own words. I am an outspoken proponent of hospitality. Indeed, I see this as one of the most important traits of a prayerful way of thought and life. But how can I coherently maintain this position while discerning between “deeply” and “insufficiently” prayerful expressions of theology and while critiquing instances of “doxological impurity”? Do not such acts of judgment on my part put dangerous limits on the exercise of hospitality? Second, can my suggestion that prayer is a key response to the crises of modernity be credible when what I call “distorted” or “falsified” forms of prayer are so prevalent as to seem virtually indistinguishable from just the ordinary practice of prayer? Does not the very notion of a crisis incentivize a simplistic framing of the issues where such always-already-corrupted cases of prayer would count (unrealistically) as a “solution” to the “problem”? These are difficult questions, worth sitting with, wrestling with. I do not want to suggest that I have any answers to them that would be so conclusive and satisfying as to delegitimize the questions themselves. On the contrary, I welcome their potential to trouble any of our practices of prayer and theology, including my own. I will, however, formulate some responses in hopes of continuing the conversation and showing how the prayerful theological method that I analyze and practice in the book may treat these issues.

    First, I want to make an important point about the framing of the first question. I do not claim any competence to judge the prayerfulness of any individual’s life, exterior or interior. Breckenridge writes: “The way the terms ‘prayer’ and ‘doxology’ are used in practice often refer to (for want of a better word) ‘external’ acts of prayer and worship—perhaps participation in liturgy, personal acts of spoken and contemplative prayer, etc. But the terms also implicitly point to something more personal, something more hidden—the mystery of each individual’s relationship with God. While it seems reasonable to make judgments about the former, it seems troubling to make judgments about the latter.” In my book, I refrain from making judgments about either. I read Martin Heidegger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, James Cone, et alia as thinkers, which is to say as writers, as intelligent composers of texts. Any judgment that I make should be taken not as an evaluation of them as persons but rather as a critical review of the thought that they have put into writing. I pay attention to the respects in which prayer becomes or does not become explicitly incorporated into their texts: i.e., in their sources, questions, theses, arguments, and so on. If thinkers write about themselves, as Cone does for instance, then I may, as I do in his case (293), comment on this practice of confessional testimony and consider what difference it makes for the sort of prayerful thought that he offers. But I want to be very clear that I leave the judgment of hearts entirely up to God.

    Still, the question remains: can one make judgments about the prayerfulness of any given expression of thought without compromising the practice of hospitality? Before addressing this more specific version of Breckenridge’s first worry, I would like to take on a different task, which I think may help, namely the task of explaining why I believe such judgments are necessary. We need them in order to resist, for example, the ways that Heidegger’s Hölderlinian ontodoxology ties the glorification of being to an anti-Jewish politics and a fateful destiny of history that would allow no petition or struggle or divine source of infinite love to change its course. In my opinion, we have to be able to say that this is not truly doxology (see ch. 1). Similarly, we need some sort of judgment in order to appreciate why Johann Baptist Metz’s apocalyptic cry in anticipation of the advent of the God of the living and the dead is preferable to any merely secular hope that, because it leaves no room for such prayer, would ultimately count only on whatever progress is achievable in history. To foster a way of thinking that remembers and cries out for the dead, as Metz does, one has to be able to say that certain forms of thought that disallow this practice are for that very reason insufficiently prayerful (see ch. 4). I could cite other examples from the book to illustrate the general point. When I make such critical judgments, I do so because something very significant is at stake, something (whether an idea or a practice) that is closely connected with prayer. In each instance, I provide specific arguments supporting both my descriptive differentiation between more and less prayerful forms of thought and my assessment that the more prayerful option is the better alternative.

    There is a question to be asked about how someone who makes such judgments relates to those who disagree. The values that prayer represents for me—above all freedom and love—suggest to me that the best course of action is obviously to respect the freedom of those who differ and to treat them with great love regardless of the severity of the disagreement. One who would seek to defend prayer by coercing others into it or by mistreating them as persons (for instance, by excluding them from community or depriving them of the basic rights and privileges of human society) would thereby, in my judgment, badly misunderstand the meaning of prayer and the sort of hospitable and other-oriented life that it demands.

    A further objection could arise, however. Perhaps the question is not primarily about how individuals treat each other but rather about the way that discourses operate. Are not judgments that are made in discourse threatening to hospitality merely by virtue of the power relations that they put into play? This is the part of the question that most troubles me. The problem, though, is a general one, affecting any arguments that may be made for or against this or that. The danger is that “yeses” and “nos” circulating in language will translate into a politics of friends and enemies, of included and excluded, of dominant and dominated. To pretend that I am neutral about prayer would be dishonest. And yet to take a stand in favor of prayer—which, if I am serious about it, will require me to make judgments in concrete cases about what aligns and does not align with such a position—potentially lays the groundwork for a politics that goes against one of the very qualities that I prize most highly in prayer, namely its inculcation of a spirit of hospitality that must be extended to the Creator and to all creatures. I do not suspect that thought alone has the capacity to overcome this conceptual difficulty, which, as deconstruction has shown, is built into the very nature of decision (see p. 119, where I discuss this issue in relation to John Caputo). I am therefore once again thrown into an open-ended practice of thinking prayer: desiring, seeking, and contemplating—even while not fully knowing, while not being able to master or resolve all the dilemmas that present themselves.

    To move on, then, to the second worry. I grant that there may be something dissatisfying in the framework of “problem” and “solution”—a framework that perhaps the idea of a crisis seems to suggest. I will say, however, that “solution” is a word I actively avoid, preferring instead to see thinking prayer as a “response” (5): a limited, fragile, but nevertheless promising alternative to thinking alone amid the shared crises facing everyone in modernity. Prayer is decidedly “not magic” (327): it does not automatically fix anything. Nevertheless, it is the best response that I have been able to discover to the theoretical and practical crises that I see everywhere in this modern age. The more challenging part of Breckenridge’s second worry seems to be her suspicion that I may not be entirely right about this, that prayer (even thinking prayer) is perhaps not a very compelling response to the crises that surround us. How could it be when so often its mundane appearances are complicit in structures of sin? Again, I appreciate the force of this objection, and I do not believe it can be easily dispatched. I would prefer that my readers sit with it and let it provoke questions for them. But, for now, here is what I can say about it.

    My first counterargument would be that we need an idea of what prayer is meant to be or what it could be in order to resist the disastrously idolatrous and violent distortions of it that are closely connected to the very crises of modernity that I am concerned to address. If I offer prayer as an answer to these crises, I also do so with an awareness that its historical practice is entangled in them and, in a sense, needs to be rescued from them. We need to think and live our way into more authentic manifestations of the love-oriented interaction between divine and creaturely freedoms that is really deserving of the name “prayer.” I am not willing to cede the meaning of this term to instances that seem to erode or contradict its greatest promise.

    Furthermore, as with the first worry, so too here, it seems possible to formulate the objection in rather general terms, which would apply to any constructive proposal whatsoever. How can one wholeheartedly affirm anything amid the tangled web of forces that we, after Foucault, tend to call “discourse” (or perhaps “society”)? If the inescapable sinfulness of the human condition which finds expression in such power relations is the concern, then everything is touched by it. Prayerfulness and prayerlessness alike would not be able to evade it. The question then becomes which of these options to prefer given the circumstances. I suggest in my book that such a dire state of affairs would actually argue for prayer rather than against it (328). To pray is to recognize that we need help, that we are fallen creatures, that all of our strivings are marked by precarity. To pray is to let suffering have a voice that calls for an infinite response, which would include the best of our human efforts to make things better as well as the hope of a comprehensive deliverance from evil and death that can only be won by God. Again, it does not seem to me that we can successfully think our way out of the idolatrous and violent traps that we set for ourselves: the structures of sin that are built into our categories of being, of selfhood, and of community. As a strategy, thinking prayer at least has the advantage of letting God into the conversation and simultaneously underscoring our human needs for humility and transformation.

    Prayer alone, in the absence of thought, strikes me as too risky. Thought provides a much-needed “check.” It requires that prayer be consistent with its own highest principles and exposes cases in which some ostensible appearance of prayer gravely falls short of the mark. Moreover, thought lets prayer be enriched by the best that human wisdom has to offer. Hence, what I am advocating is “thinking prayer.” To start down this path is not to have achieved perfection, immunity, or even the right to feel comfortable and reassured. On the contrary, it is merely to set certain broad yet demanding parameters on the search for a better—by which I mean more divine, more humane, and more amorous—future.

Response

With and Without Words

Balthasar, Metaphysics, Prayer

Introduction

Andrew Prevot’s Thinking Prayer seeks to address a profound trouble in modern academic theology. Where his contribution marks itself out from other attempts is in his concern for “liberative movements of personal and social transformation in resistance against the violent structures of the world.” (8) Prevot convincingly shows how prayer can, and often does, rest at the heart of what we might very broadly call liberation theologies.1

In my response here, I take some time to offer a critique and a contribution to Prevot’s work. I provide an interpretation of Hans Urs von Balthasar that in many ways runs counter to Prevot’s, and in that sense serves as an attentive critique. In other words, I think Prevot fundamentally misreads Balthasar in certain important respects. At the same time, my interpretation pays particular attention to aspects of what I take to be Prevot’s central concerns, and in that effort I conscientiously work to be constructive. That is, I attend to his concern for “counterviolent spirituality,” (5, 166, 326) and the hope of a theology that does not set itself up as a demagogue of control. (71, 192) As a point of clarification, it should be noted that not everything I establish about Balthasar is in contradistinction to Prevot. Our difference is not total.

Fragments and Form

Balthasar’s Theological Anthropology (1963), Das Ganze im Fragment, gives us some key insights into Balthasar’s foundational ideas. That the book’s title is in fact The Whole in the Fragment should already alert us to Balthasar’s sensitivity to partial understanding, to mystery, to finitude before infinity.2 A particular passage is relevant for us here. In it, Balthasar reflects on how the various questions born from suffering find their way into Christ’s cry of dereliction:

The end of the question is the great cry. It is the word that is no longer a word, that therefore can no longer be understood and interpreted as a word. It is the monstrous thing that still remains after everything moderate, understandable, and attuned to the hearing of men has faded away. In truth, one should hear in every clothed word what breaks out naked in this cry. It is something literally unsayable, which comes from infinitely further than is comprised in the finite dialogic situation, and is directed infinitely further than can be expressed in the creaturely word in fully formed words.”3

Balthasar describes the shattering of human words on the cross, a destruction provoked by the incomprehensible immensity of suffering. There is a point at which even our questions collapse, and here Jesus endures it. This moment on the cross is diametrically opposed to nihilism because, where words fail, still the Word speaks, if only in a cry. Because he is Word as well as flesh, Jesus is able to utter that “monstrous thing” burdening all human meaning as well as voice his own suffering.

There is a tension in Balthasar, the pull of two contrary positions whose ultimate synthesis is not to be found in the created order. As much as he stresses form (Gestalt), he also struggles to make sense of the loss of form. This loss cannot be merely resolved by form, swallowed by a higher order in an imperious Hegelian gesture. “The hideous form [Ungestalt],” he writes, “is part of the world’s form [Gestalt], and so it must be included, essentially, among the themes and subject matter of artistic creation.”4 The Ungestalt of the world is taken up not only by art, but also on the cross. Balthasar asks, “Can the concept of ‘form’ [Gestalt] cope with the monstrous form [Ungestalt] of sin, suffering, and Cross?”5 So, nearly incomprehensibly, Balthasar is willing to say that Christ on the cross is in some manner un-form (Ungestalt). That is, Balthasar wonders whether the form of theological aesthetics can survive theological dramatics, or if—particularly in the face of human suffering—beauty gives way to horror.

There are more positive ways in which Balthasar grapples with form and the unsayable. In his aesthetics, before he writes Das Ganze im Fragment, Balthasar reminds us that the form of beauty is always accompanied by splendor and delight. We are enraptured, or ecstatically brought beyond ourselves, by the splendid appearance of the form. “But,” he says, “so long as we are dealing with the beautiful, this never happens in such a way that we leave the (horizontal) form behind us in order to plunge (vertically) into the naked depths.”6 First, then, Balthasar insists that the beautiful is accompanied by an excess of meaning, by the appearance being itself, which we cannot control or divide. Second, he warns against a perspective outside of the finite form by which we perceive being. Indeed, without splendor and form together, without mystery beheld under the limits of our contingency, we lose even our own materiality.7

There are deep resonances here with Prevot’s other sources. Metz gives us a theology that refuses to look away from the incomprehensibility of Auschwitz, and for him the response needs to be Christological. For phenomenologists like Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Louis Chrétien in particular, the appearance of the phenomenon is “saturated,” even over-saturated, by meaning (Marion), or so profound that it hints at an unexpected transcendence (Chrétien).

It would seem questionable, then, to claim that “Balthasar may risk contemplating the divine mystery as though it were nearly as evident as the event of being itself.” (91, 100) This critique resembles that of Karen Kilby, 8 and in both cases there threatens to be an elision of form and being, an identification of form and splendor, that Balthasar himself does not condone. Forgetting splendor reduces beauty to what Balthasar might negatively call “aesthetic theology,” or at the very least it renders Balthasar’s theology of mystery either absent or incomprehensible. The error threatens to strip Balthasar down into a stereotypical phantom of German philosophy, a creature feigning control and comprehension where humility ought to rule. But this is arguably to see through a fear rather than a reality.

The pattern, for Balthasar, is a continual tension between fragmentariness and wholeness. In the created world, this tension is never resolved; in Balthasar’s own work, it is deliberately never resolved. Through dramatic crossways like these—fragment and whole, universal and particular, etc.—Balthasar moves to appropriate other thought-forms; ever and always, the integrity of the particular persists as the form of our perception of the whole.

Cultural Pluralism

Balthasar is determined to gather a wealth of fragments by which to understand theology and its task. If we attend to the manner that he gathers his fragments, his methodical intent or theological “style,” we immediately notice two things: he is profoundly aware of his limitations—his own fragmentariness—and he is highly critical of a European tradition that imagines itself as self-enclosed. In the very beginning of Glory of the Lord, Balthasar writes, “The overall scope of the present work naturally remains all too Mediterranean. The inclusion of other cultures, especially that of Asia, would have been important and fruitful. . . . May those qualified come to complete the present fragment.” 9 He explicitly acknowledges the limits of his education, calls his work a fragment, and asks others to supply where he lacks. Balthasar has not written a comprehensive theology, and he does not claim that he has. He presents us instead with a method, much as he might resist that word.

When Balthasar approaches the cultures he knows well, from his youthful dissertation to his later works, he continually rearranges those resources in order to critically open them not only to theology, but also to the world. In Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, the revision of his dissertation, Balthasar not only accuses German culture of becoming “the apotheosis of death” by restricting itself to pure immanence and control, but he also uses non-German sources to counter that culture.10 Both Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky appear in order to put the question to the titanisms of German Idealism and existentialism. From there, Balthasar works outward, rapidly appropriating—the realm of aesthetics alone—English literature (most of all in G. M. Hopkins), French literature (Paul Claudel, Charles Péguy, Georges Bernanos, etc.), and more. He spirals outward from what is near to what is far, using what is familiar to extend himself into what is not. This extension went beyond Europe, moving tentatively but consistently into Japanese thought and art in particular. He shows increasing awareness of Eastern artistic forms, with particular attention to the Japanese encounter with German Idealism, as a mid-career example;11, and by the time of Theo-Logic II (1984), he employs the thought of Keji Nishitani, a Japanese scholar, among others, and has clearly done more research on Eastern thought, allowing him to finally, seriously differentiate its shape from that of Hegel.12

It is untrue, then, to say that Balthasar “disregards non-European others,” (71) or to say that a criterion for inclusion in his canon of resources is “a certain kind of status within the Euro-Mediterranean and North Atlantic ‘West.’” (90) Nor is it appropriate to collapse his work on Russian literature and religious philosophers into a broadly Eastern European or Western framework, thereby domesticating Balthasar’s interests, as Russian culture is far too hybridic to safely fall under such a description, and it is unclear whether Russians would ascribe it to themselves. (This collapse occurs especially on Thinking Prayer, 90.) It would be far truer to accuse Balthasar scholarship—especially in the English world—of being content with Balthasar’s own limitations, and by omission fails to imitate the determined self-expansion of Balthasar himself.

Because Balthasar is serious about the fragmentary nature of our knowledge, especially as it is expressed in culture, he works to leave his European background open to other cultures and he works to extend his knowledge beyond it. He remains a European man of letters, but his efforts to acknowledge and address his own limits are one helpful way to cope with one’s own lack. By no means is his the only way to do so.

Aletheia

This brings us to Balthasar’s use of and opposition to Heidegger, and we have prepared for it in two ways: (1) by acquiring a background in Balthasar’s fundamental (metaphysical and theological) outlook, (2) by examining how this background plays itself out in his use of cultural resources. Both are directed against Heidegger, and Prevot gamely attends to many of the ways Balthasar sets himself in opposition to Heidegger. At the same time, Prevot is concerned that Balthasar capitulates too much to Heidegger, emerging as only partially post-metaphysical and only partially able to relinquish modern “technological” (in Heidegger’s sense) efforts at domination. (101, 109) I will surface Baltahsar’s use of Heidegger in one exemplary way in order to question the truth of this claim.

Balthasar begins Theo-Logic I (originally Wahrheit, 1947) with truth, and not with aletheia. The enterprise of human thinking begins always with truth. 13 Against the possibility that truth is an arbitrary assignation of meaning, Balthasar also contends that “the thinking subject is always one that exists and recognizes that it does.” 14 So, at the very least, the thinking subject knows the truth of being in the experienced facticity of his or her own existence. Both of these preliminary gestures, toward truth and toward the subject, take place before Balthasar formally introduces Heidegger’s aletheia. Both are performed with deliberate attention to Thomas Aquinas and to Maurice Blondel. Beginning with truth itself mimics the structure of Thomas’s De veritate, and moving from there into the experience of the thinking subject follows Blondel’s L’Action. Both men help provide the ground for and the protective measure against Heidegger. Only then does Balthasar explain that truth is “the unveiledness, uncoverdness, disclosedness, and unconcealment of being.”15

“Truth in the full sense,” Balthasar writes, “is actualized only in the act of judging the truth—as the manifestness of being now possessed as such in a consciousness.” 16 That truth is a judgment is drawn directly from Thomas, who speaks not only of “adequation” to the thing, but also firmly locates truth as that which an intellect knows. This judgment is aletheia, is an unveiling, and it is an unveiling within a consciousness. Heidegger’s aletheia appears not only within Thomas, but by directing his reflection into the realm of consciousness, Balthasar more nearly appropriates Blondel.

It is not merely that being manifests itself. It is that contingent being is true self-evidently in the knowing subject because being is also known by an infinite subject. For Balthasar, truth has to be understood in the context of a theocentric Thomism. Alongside this, truth is accompanied by the complexity of a conscious subject who is already acting in the world, and in acting that person implicitly affirms the supernatural (that is, the transcendent). So for Balthasar, aletheia has to be understood within the dramatic boundaries of historical action, which occurs within and before God. This is Blondel’s insight. By grounding aletheia in an account of authentic transcendence, Balthasar wrests truth from the temptation to Promethian dominance. All contingent truth, including that of the knower, is unveiled under the double mysteries of the finite and the infinite. There is not even a bridge between finitude and infinity; there is only the delicate rhythm of analogy, which moves through all of being (Przywara). Attempts to dominate truth fail because the truth is not independent of knowing subjects, and because contingent knowing subjects do not know truth apart from God. In other words, the truth is poor, and “knowledge is, in the very act of its origination, service.”17

In the first few movements of Theo-Logic I alone, then, we see an appropriation of Heidegger that at the same time questions the grounds from which Heidegger speaks, and Balthasar does so by giving new foundational perspectives to the original Heideggerian idea. At its minimum, Balthasar’s use of aletheia puts to question how indebted to Heidegger that idea ends up being for Balthasar. In a more maximal interpretation, it opens the door to seeing every Heideggerian idea in Balthasar under a new light. Certainly it is the case that truth and knowledge, for Balthasar, are not about domination.

Recapitulation

To briefly recapitulate our themes: created being must bow before the Creator it anticipates but does not know, even as its own deference is already an image of the Word. Yet this image is but a dim anticipation of Christological prayer. Within this context of an ever-echoed dialogue of analogies, the “monstrous thing,” the Ungestalt and un-word, appears in all the defiance of what it does and does not resemble.

It is perhaps the case that Prevot associates any allegiance to metaphysics as a problematic capitulation to control over knowledge and a concealment of suffering. Thus our need to move beyond metaphysics. While I would question such a narrative, which certainly Prevot is too nuanced to adopt naively, the more important point is that for Balthasar, in any case, the word “metaphysics” does not function in this way.

Conclusion

What I have worked to do here is provide an alternate reading of Hans Urs von Balthasar, one that brings him nearer to Andrew Prevot’s ultimate concerns. Rather than positioning Balthasar in opposition to liberation, it is more faithful to his thought to see ways his thought grounds possibilities of liberation, however deeply or thinly he understood the liberation theology of his time. Still, the fact that Balthasar did not spend himself in specific questions of liberation, does not replace the need for this, which makes Prevot’s efforts here fundamental to the continued development of theology. Balthasar is, in my view, less Heideggerian and less culturally imperial than Prevot imagines. He is, too, more open to lingering questions of suffering. I would argue that these realities are undergirded throughout by Balthasar’s metaphysics, and in that respect I do not see Balthasar as post-metaphysical at all, much as he can be used in such efforts. Yet here I suspect that we do not mean the same thing by “metaphysical,” and so for now the disagreement is at least partially insoluble.

I want to reiterate that I have taken the time to offer a lengthy critique because I think Prevot’s interests are important, and because his reflections in Thinking Prayer are helpful. However many our disagreements or confusions, I will insist on that. And I thank you for your patient reading.


  1. I mean the term very loosely here, as there is no neat way to categorize Metz, Latin American liberation, and Cone together. They are, however, all concerned with liberations of various kinds.

  2. Jennifer Newsome Martin, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 25–28; Anne M. Carpenter, Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 105–7.

  3. Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theological Anthropology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 280.

  4. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 2, Dramatis Personae: Man in God, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 27.

  5. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 3, Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), 55.

  6. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1, Seeing the Form, 2nd ed., trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009), 116.

  7. Balthasar, GL, 1:19.

  8. Karen Kilby, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

  9. Balthasar, GL, 1:11.

  10. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, 3 vols. (Johannes Verlag, 1998).

  11. This occurs most clearly in Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 1, Prolegomena, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988). He indicates some awareness of the history of drama in the East Asia (293, 311), and spends a good deal of time examining aspects of Japanese thought, with special emphasis on the mutual encounter between it and German Idealism (551–54, 557).

  12. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory, vol. 2, Truth of the World, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 91–95.

  13. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory, vol. 1, The Truth of the World, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 36.

  14. Balthasar, TL, 1:37.

  15. Ibid., 37.

  16. Ibid., 41.

  17. Ibid., 68.

  • Andrew Prevot

    Reply

    Reply to Anne Carpenter

    Let me begin by thanking Anne Carpenter for taking the time to read and respond to my book and especially for sharing some of her insights about Hans Urs von Balthasar, which are quite valuable. I particularly appreciate her attention to Balthasar’s thoughts on Ungestalt and splendor, which draw out the apophatic dimensions of his work. I am also very grateful for the quote that she includes from The Glory of the Lord, volume 1, in which he expresses the fragmentary and thus non-total nature of his project and calls for its completion by others in different cultures.

    Perhaps we do have some disagreements about what Balthasar says, though I must confess that after reading this response I do not grasp what precisely they would be. Many of the points that Carpenter offers as a “critique” of my book are points with which I would agree. Not only that, I articulate them in my own words in the pages of the book. If we do have an exegetical disagreement, then it seems to occur at a different level. It is not so much about how to understand Balthasar’s thought as it is about how to understand mine, that is, what I have and have not argued. Below I will show that my reading of Balthasar is more consistent with Carpenter’s than she suggests.

    There may be other sorts of disagreement between us, for example, about the meanings of metaphysics and liberation theology and particularly about what roles they should or should not play in contemporary prayerful theology. If we do not see eye to eye on these constructive theological issues, Balthasar would certainly be relevant to our further discussion of them (which I would be happy to continue in some other forum). But the conversation between Carpenter and me would ultimately have to draw in other sources on both metaphysics and liberation theology in order to clarify where precisely each of us stands and why. In what follows, I will attempt to restate briefly not only my positions on metaphysics and liberation theology but also my reasons for holding them. I cannot do more than this because I cannot be certain what Carpenter’s positions are or what reasons she has for them, since she does not communicate this information directly in her review. This is an understandable omission given the limits of space and genre, but it unfortunately prevents an adjudication of these more substantial points of disagreement, if there really are points of disagreement, here.

    As I said above, I appreciate Carpenter’s insights regarding Ungestalt and splendor. Although I do not analyze Balthasar’s use of these terms, I do address their significance in other ways. For instance, I recognize that “each of the figures that [Balthasar] considers [in his theological aesthetics] represents a concrete way or style of beholding the doxa and logos of Christ amid the beautiful appearances of the world—but also, and crucially, amid the miserable conditions of fallen existence. Balthasar’s Christian ressourcement, therefore, shows that the openness of one’s body and mind to the divine other which the practice of doxology entails must occur not only within the somewhat sanitized realm of the analogia entis, that is, the creaturely domain of being that participates in a contingent way in the being of God, but also in the factual world of sin, suffering, violence, and death, which, in the extremes of alienation from God, approaches the condition of nonbeing or total dissimilarity” (92). Here I think I come quite close to the meaning of the Ungestalt: the Christian contemplative’s participation in Christ’s incomprehensible experiences of agony and abandonment.

    Moreover, I acknowledge “apophatic dimensions in the doctrine of analogy,” particularly associated with the infinitum, which allow Balthasar to be defended against any Heideggerian charge of ontotheological reduction of the mystery of being (93). I explain that analogy, for Erich Przywara and Balthasar who follows him, is the relation of infinite and finite in which the infinite both appears within and transcends the finite. In a footnote, I refer to John Betz’s helpful argument that Balthasar’s doctrine of analogy is closely connected with his theological aesthetics. Splendor-in-form is one side of the aesthetic transposition of analogy; splendor-beyond-form is the other. In this footnote, I write: “Betz shows that various excessive and immanentist tendencies of modern and postmodern aesthetics are resisted effectively only by retrieving an analogical balance between the beautiful (splendor-in-form) and the sublime (splendor-beyond-form)” (352n24). I agree with Carpenter that there is excess in Balthasar’s aesthetics.

    I can see why Carpenter might want me to have incorporated some such notions of Christ’s incomprehensibly glorious and unglorious suffering and the infinite sublimity of divine being more explicitly into my discussion of form and gnosis on pp. 86ff., but I do not think that doing so would fundamentally change the point that I am trying to make on these pages about the parousiacal quality of Balthasar’s contemplation, especially in comparison to other thinkers in later chapters (Jean-Luc Marion, Johann Baptist Metz, etc.). Although there are some resonances between my argument and Karen Kilby’s on this point, they are not exactly the same. In a footnote, I explain the relationship: “Karen Kilby voices a similar concern in Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction. She objects to Balthasar’s adoption of a ‘God’s eye view,’ arguing that this theological style performatively contradicts his various statements regarding the need for epistemic humility (13–14). Kilby’s critique may be too strong. Balthasar perhaps does not so much fall into contradiction as he takes a risk (questionable, to be sure, but perhaps not devastatingly so) which keeps his prayerful thought somewhat close to the dangers of metaphysics. Exactly how close is not easy to determine; there is some proximity and some differentiation here. On a sympathetic reading, he does not negate the attitude of prayer (as Kilby suggests, 160) but rather relies on a ‘pleromatically’ apocalyptic mode of it, in the sense that O’Regan employs in Theology and the Spaces of Apocalyptic” (353n36). In a sense, I take Kilby’s point, but I take O’Regan’s, as well.

    When I suggest that “Balthasar may risk contemplating the divine mystery as though it were nearly as evident as the event of being itself” (87), I am drawing a comparison with the way that Heidegger thinks phenomenologically and poetically about the event of being (Ereignis), which, for Heidegger, is by no means lacking in mystery; it appears together with nothingness (das Nichts); it withdraws; one cannot master its play (63). For Heidegger, the “last God” is mysterious in a different sense; it is not manifest except through the hints of “the gods,” which barely signify it. Balthasar is different here. His strong doctrine of divine revelation in the form of Christ makes God—however sublime, however immersed in the unthinkable abysses of Good Friday and Holy Saturday—aesthetically and epistemologically accessible, in a manner somewhat like the mysterious veiling and unveiling of Heidegger’s Ereignis. I do not claim that this Balthasarian perspective is illicit or unhelpful (in fact, I see many benefits to it: 87). I certainly do not prefer Heidegger’s approach to it, as my critique of Heidegger in chapter 1 demonstrates. Nonetheless, other thinkers of prayer who appear somewhere in between Heidegger and Balthasar (such as Jean-Yves Lacoste, for instance, who argues that liturgy is more nearly an act of anticipation than an experience of the absolute: 137) make me pause and question whether Balthasar may somewhat overestimate humanity’s experiential knowledge of God in contemplation. It’s an open question for me.

    Regarding the question of cultural plurality, my argument is more sensitive to Balthasar’s strengths in this area than Carpenter indicates. Her quotes from my book need more context to be properly understood. At the same time, I do not think that she has sufficiently appreciated my concerns. Let me, therefore, reproduce a passage at length, which begins with one of the quotes that Carpenter finds troubling, in order to indicate the greater complexity of my views. This excerpt is drawn from pp. 89–91:

    Among Balthasar’s criteria for inclusion in this canon of doxological aesthetics would seem to be not only evidence of a profoundly Christian experience of the divine glory and word but also a certain kind of status within the Euro-Mediterranean and North Atlantic “West” (including, in his case, the churches and nations of Eastern Europe). These two criteria—doxological and occidental—can be understood as deeply interrelated precisely to the extent that Christianity has historically maintained a very prominent presence not only in particular geographical regions but also in corresponding intellectual, political, and cultural-linguistic traditions, which one might (always contestably) consider “Western” and even in some sense eventually and predominantly “white.” However, already in antiquity, but also and especially in the modern period, Christian doxology has taken root in many cultures and in many parts of the world that do not fall within the supposed interior of the occident or the parameters of modern “whiteness”—and this Christian “outside” or “underside” is something that Balthasar leaves largely out of consideration, despite the symphonic style of his work.

    To be sure, Balthasar cannot be faulted simply for falling short of the ideal of universal inclusion. In fact, he is to be given credit for avoiding a too formal enactment of this ideal, which would only result in an abstract totality and the consequent loss of any real, meaningful, and culturally rooted aesthetics. Understood sympathetically, Balthasar means to do no more than address the local—but perhaps still relatable—conditions of an occidental culture that has forgotten the original source of its promise. This promise is not to be found, as Heidegger problematically insists, merely in the event of being that provides the gravitational center of Greco-German poetry and philosophy. Rather, according to Balthasar, the promise comes forth from the incarnate and glorious mystery of God, which has been contemplated and welcomed by generations of prayerful Christian thinkers, including men and women, representing various eras, regions, and vocations within a diversified ecclesial history. Unlike Heidegger, who sets the Greek and Hebrew foundations of doxology in opposition to each other and almost completely disregards the latter, Balthasar engages thinkers who have found ways to blend the two together. In these respects, his aesthetics shows itself to be much more inclusive than Heidegger’s. Furthermore, and most decisively, although Balthasar’s doxology is predominantly occidental, this cultural location does not become explicitly normative for his doxology in the way that Greco-German “purity” does for Heidegger’s. Balthasar argues that all poetry has already been conditioned by, and is at best an imperfect imitation of, the incomparable communication of the doxa and logos of Christ, which manifest a universally redemptive love. In short, Balthasar affirms that Christ, not Hölderlin, is the norma normans non normata for salvation and, moreover, that the hope we place in this salvation must exclude no one (not even those who seem explicitly to reject it). To assert this in the German-speaking part of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century is at least implicitly to take a strong theoretical and political stance against the worst forms of regnant nationalist spirit.

    And yet, although Balthasar avoids the most problematic aspects of Heidegger’s demand for cultural purity, the fact remains that his doxology is generally untroubled by the colonial, neocolonial, and racial implications of modern Western aesthetics, which has, since the origins of modernity, been propagated as though it were universally normative. He gives little resistance to this lamentable trend. Nor does he demonstrate critical awareness of it. His doxological symphony does not include the sort of de-colonial “border thinking” that has recently been proposed by Roberto Goizueta, Walter Mignolo, and others as a necessary epistemological and ethical recourse in opposition to the violent legacies of modern coloniality. Nor does he consider the doxological significance of blackness (which Cone will illuminate for us in the last chapter). The doxological aesthetics that he offers is not thereby simply invalidated, but it is revealed to be, in these ways, significantly limited as a response to the crises of the modern age. Nihilism, technology, the oblivion of difference, the diminishment of hospitality and love—Balthasar recognizes and counteracts these problems through his practice of doxological contemplation. But he also leaves room to desire a greater remembrance of difference and a broader and more rigorous performance of love and hospitality, in which one would search for the fullness of Christian doxology not only within but also beyond (and along) the disruptive borders of a “white”-dominated West.

    Even if we grant a certain non-Western status to Balthasar’s Russian sources, his use of them still does not address the concerns about colonial and racial aesthetics in modernity that the other sources in my book would demand that we confront. It is true that I do not discuss Balthasar’s use of Nishitani in Theo-Logic, volume 2, which I do find intriguing as an instance of interreligious and cross-cultural encounter in Balthasar’s theology. Nevertheless, as a Buddhist, Nishitani is not an example of “the Christian ‘outside’ or ‘underside’” that I am concerned to elevate theologically, again in harmony with the other sources I am using. By their standards and mine, Balthasar leaves something to be desired. But I trust that the preceding passage clarifies that I try to give him as much credit as possible.

    As far as the questions of truth and being are concerned, I agree entirely that Balthasar needs to be understood in close connection with Aquinas. I speak about Balthasar’s “preference for the Thomistic understanding of divine being not as ens infinitum but rather as esse subsistens” (79, see also 352n17); I liken his Wahrheit volume to Rahner’s comparably Thomistic Spirit in the World (351n3); and I emphasize that Balthasar depends heavily on Przywara’s doctrine of analogy, which has significant debts to Aquinas (75–83). I am interested in certain borrowings from Heidegger’s aletheiological phenomenology, which I believe I have demonstrated are there, but I never lose sight of the fact that Balthasar’s epistemology and ontology are deeply informed by the Thomistic tradition.

    Let me turn, then, finally to what may be the most substantive issues: metaphysics and liberation theology. Carpenter writes: “I do not see Balthasar as post-metaphysical at all, much as he can be used in such efforts. Yet here I suspect that we do not mean the same thing by ‘metaphysical,’ and so for now the disagreement is at least partially insoluble.” I would be curious to know what sense of “metaphysical” Carpenter favors. If she means the analogical metaphysics that Balthasar develops on the basis of Przywara and elaborates in his own way throughout The Glory of the Lord, volumes 4 and 5, then I am explicitly in agreement with her. In this sense, Balthasar is a metaphysical thinker (78). However, in his works, the word “metaphysics” has multiple meanings. He also recognizes a monistic metaphysical tradition, with roots in premodernity but disastrous excesses in modernity, exemplified by what he calls “the metaphysics of spirit.” He offers a retrieval of Christian doxology as an alternative to this sort of dangerous monistic metaphysics, which he thinks is bound up with the crises of modernity. In these respects, he depends directly on Heidegger, though, as I endeavor to show, he importantly modifies and resists Heidegger’s proposal by drawing a distinction between the analogical and the monistic. The monistic corresponds more or less to Heidegger’s construct of ontotheology as the nihilistic concealment of difference; the analogical, according to Balthasar, does not. In fact, he believes it is the only viable way to overcome it (81–83).

    After Balthasar, there is a post-Balthasarian tradition including thinkers such as Marion, Lacoste, and Jean-Louis Chrétien who hold onto the formal structure of analogy but employ it more nearly phenomenologically than metaphysically. Metaphysics and phenomenology are different styles of thought for these thinkers, and the stylistic differences matter to them. Chapter 3 interprets the efforts of such theological phenomenologists to think about prayer as a phenomenon and to think prayerfully. Their works are more or less intentionally postmetaphysical, but they are so in a post-Balthasarian fashion characterized by doxological contemplation. They must be distinguished from the post-Heideggerian writings of Jacques Derrida and John Caputo, which make little distinction between doxology and metaphysics and therefore seek largely to do without both. In this next generation of the debate, I argue that there is good reason for prayerful Christian thinkers to pursue a mode of contemplation that is postmetaphysical in a post-Balthasarian manner. Metaphysics as a science (and what else is it supposed to be?) has become problematic in modernity, but doxological contemplation remains crucial. I think the French “theological turn” gives us a promising way forward beyond this impasse.

    Regarding liberation theology, Carpenter proposes the following: “Rather than positioning Balthasar in opposition to liberation, it is more faithful to his thought to see ways his thought grounds possibilities of liberation, however deeply or thinly he understood the liberation theology of his time.” I understood myself to be doing just this in the coda of the Balthasar chapter, which emphasizes his appropriation of the works of the socially engaged contemplative poet Charles Péguy in The Glory of the Lord, volume 3, and in my readings of Latin American liberation theology (chapter 5) and black liberation theology (chapter 6) as doxological traditions consistent with Balthasar’s deepest insights about prayer. Immediately after discussing Balthasar’s views on liberation theology, which do not rise to the levels of charitable interpretation that he extends to other voices in his symphony, I explain how my argument will proceed: “In the fifth and sixth chapters, we shall see how Balthasar’s efforts to integrate doxological theory and praxis are mirrored, concretized, and in some respects significantly enhanced by the doxological spiritualities of certain Christian liberation theologians” (104). I do not exclude Balthasar from the collective search for a more prayerful and liberative form of Christian theology amid the crises of modernity; rather, I welcome him into it.

    But his work needs to receive some critical pushback on certain points in order to be useful in this endeavor. As far as I can gather, the difference between Carpenter and myself on the question of Balthasar and liberation theology does not have to do with our willingness to recognize Balthasar’s potential contributions to liberation. We really do agree on that. Rather, the difference has to do with my willingness to critique his written statements about liberation theology, which for the most part do not stand up to academic scrutiny and which, moreover, may be harmful to the poor and oppressed, that is, if these statements are taken as a valid religious justification for neglecting or opposing these communities’ struggles for justice and freedom. Carpenter does not say clearly what she thinks about Balthasar’s judgments against liberation theology. Are his judgments wrong or not? If his views warrant a mixed evaluation, what does he get right and where might he be mistaken? Is he a sufficient source, or do we also need to take seriously the voices and contributions of Latin American and black liberation theologians, among others?

    In my book, I argue that it is not enough for Christian theologians to admire Balthasar. We have got to think with and beyond him.

    • Anne Michelle Carpenter

      Reply

      Reply by Anne Michelle Carpenter

      I want to sincerely thank Andrew Prevot for his thoughtful response to my response. There is much in it to be contemplated, and I happily received correction on several matters. I have spent the day trying to reflect on how to better encourage a dialogue between us, as I cannot help but think that I have started us off on the wrong foot. As I said in my previous response, there is much on which Prevot and I agree, including Balthasar. I had also said that not everything I wrote of Balthasar was in contradistinction to Prevot, but I think I was not clear enough on where and when. I did not wish for this discussion to be a question of exegeting Prevot’s wonderful book, which I appreciate deeply, so much as I wish for this to be a question of asking just “who” Balthasar is and what he is to be critiqued for, a question that can be extended far beyond Balthasar himself. Since Balthasar is often taken to be a representative of many thought-forms, I am interested in what those thought-forms have to do with liberation, what they might learn from liberation, how they might help liberation.

      I would like to take some time to reflect aloud. I will meander at points, I fear, but always with the goal of trying to understand, and of trying to find the place where dialogue might begin.

      If there is a question of whether I have interpreted Prevot with sufficient sympathy, I think Prevot is right to raise it. I am not sure, even after much thought, that I was sufficiently sympathetic. I did my best to be. It makes me wonder—and I will say more on this in a moment—what is happening in the collision between our interests. I am sorry to give the impression of a hardened heart, since I do not wish to be this for another scholar. I was and I am quite moved by Prevot’s book, and I hesitate only at certain aspects of the Balthasar presented in its pages – not all of this Balthasar, or even most.

      To return to a thought: I wonder if, in a way, Prevot and I (or at least I) relive a difference engrained in us rather than one we explicitly hold. Since I saw in Prevot a troubling identification of certain Heideggerian and Balthasarian ideas, and since Prevot sees in me an unwillingness to perceive how he differentiates between Heidegger and Balthasar, I wonder: what is it that surfaces in each of us here? What difference (and difference, for Balthasar, can be good) finds its way forward? This difference is not, I think, over whether Balthasar may be critiqued at all. My criticisms of Anglophone Balthasar scholarship and of Balthasar’s own grasp of Buddhism, for example, ought to make this clear. Or I was perhaps too polite to Balthasar. That would be fair to say of me, I think.

      To explain what I mean, it might be better to begin with liberation theology and then move into Heidegger, the latter of which is our more substantive disagreement. Prevot and I, as he rightly says, mostly agree on the broad problem of liberation. To answer some of Prevot’s queries: I made no real effort to defend Balthasar’s direct statements on liberation theology simply because I think – with Prevot, I might say – that Balthasar is nearer to it than he himself imagines. And here our (Prevot and my) difference might be something like emphasis, something also like method. I do not think much of Balthasar’s critiques of liberation theology when it comes to contemporary liberation theology in particular, not only because such theology has developed in ways that render his (late 1970s) criticisms void, but also because identifying him with those critiques swiftly conceals his profound relationship to ideas of liberation. In a word, my anxiety is much more that Balthasar will be – and has already been – dismissed from questions of liberation, rather than whether he was accurate in his statements about liberation theology. This is not to say that I think his critiques, whether of the liberation theologies of his time or of now, never apply. I want mainly to focus on the larger question, not of whether Balthasar’s grasp of liberation theology is accurate (it does not seem so), but whether his thought is liberative. On this, I think Prevot and I agree that the answer is “Yes,” but never an unqualified “Yes.”

      I wonder, then, if something that occurs here has to do with the overlapping but distinct scholarly traditions in which Prevot and I participate. I, accustomed to a Balthasar characterized as the enemy of liberation theology, quickly moved to both broaden the question and to reveal the quite self-aware ways Balthasar shared the same eros as liberation theologies often do. None of us moves in scholarly worlds void of context, and mine is certainly one quite weary of easy opposition between Balthasar and liberation. I never thought, and still do not think, that Prevot reiterates this well-worn habit. My concern is something much more like Prevot’s series of questions: “Are his judgments wrong or not? If his views warrant a mixed evaluation, what does he get right and where might he be mistaken? Is he a sufficient source, or do we also need to take seriously the voices and contributions of Latin American and black liberation theologians, among others?” Mixed indeed, but I am asking about his thought more broadly. I would never imagine that Balthasar is sufficient for anything in theology – I do not think he imagined himself so – but I also struggle to imagine how we would ever think he was in the first place. It is one thing to ask in what ways Balthasar does and does not grasp the liberation theology of his time; it is another to ask whether and how he is (and is not) liberative; it is still another to ask whether he is sufficient (and he never, ever would be). What ghost, what specter of wrong, exists here that I do not see, but that Prevot does? That it is a ghost does not make it unreal; it means only that I struggle to see it.

      I apologize if my meaning in the above is not clear. It is my way of asking after what we are not quite saying in our questions to one another.

      When it comes to Heidegger and metaphysics, it seems to me that there is something more substantive at play in our disagreement. I take Balthasar to be relying on Heidegger significantly less than Prevot does, even in Prevot’s (eminently patient) re-explanation of himself. Balthasar does not, it seems to me, perceive the tradition of metaphysics – which, for him, is really several traditions – in the ways that Heidegger does. That is one way that Prevot and I at least appear to separate, and it does begin to indicate how our definitions of metaphysics diverge. For me, it is not so much that Balthasar modifies Heidegger as it is that Balthasar completely reimagines Heidegger even while borrowing from him. The difference between relying on Heidegger and reimagining Heidegger is in many instances too small to even be interesting, but in the cases of mystery and gnosis, it is quite decisive.

      In his Epilogue, which closes the Trilogy, Balthasar describes being as “the most obvious, the most unquestioned of all things: sheer existence” (45). He immediately moves to Thomas to support his claim. Such a definition of the metaphysical certainly includes figures like Heidegger and Pzrywara, but it also marks Balthasar as distinct from either (if at the same time quite indebted to Przywara). But Balthasar understands himself to be essentially Thomist, which is why his definition of being is so “minimal” and yet so precise in its minimalism. This plays out in Balthasar in quite marked ways, most of all when it comes to his epistemology and his grasp of mystery. I tried to show how, even as Prevot and I agree in many ways, Balthasar develops these ideas distinctively. It was too much of me to refer to Kilby’s work, since of course Prevot is not identical in tenor or intent. It does mean, I think, that Balthasar is far less prone to over-attribute knowledge to the subject, far less prone to technological dominance. This is what I had intended to foreground by discussing Gestalt, Ungestalt, splendor, and (quite vitally) Blondel-and-Thomas.

      I suppose we are both asking, “What has Balthasar to do with Heidegger?” We diverge quite a bit in our response to this question, though never completely. At the same time, I think much more importantly we are asking how knowledge, prayer, and power relate to one another. I want to ask both questions, was trying to ask them originally, and they can often be quite complexly knotted together.

      As for cultural pluralism: point taken, I think, for the most part. I better understand what it is Prevot means – though I admit this hesitantly, for fear I do not really understand – and so I can see how, yes, Balthasar does not attend to the Christian “underside” in the ways Prevot desires. We need James Cone’s thought, for example, for things that Balthasar never does, for things that it does not occur to Balthasar to reflect upon at all. I do not know that this requires making the broader statements that Prevot makes about Balthasar and culture, especially since I never imagine Balthasar as sufficient to theology in the first place. Balthasar does, though, attend to voices that are not his own, that are not purely Western nor required to be, that do not neatly align with his perspective. He is quite invested in the “underside” of thought, even the Christian underside. I don’t know that Prevot gives Balthasar enough credit here. But here again I wonder if Prevot and I speak from different places, and so also past one another. His question is perhaps less whether Balthasar allows minority voices (and I would say that he does, indeed quite subversively), but more whether Balthasar includes specific kinds of minority voices.

      I would have liked – and would still like – for my reply to be the beginning of a conversation. I want to talk about how Balthasar’s thought, and thought like Balthasar’s, so often finds itself opposed to liberation—and yet not really so opposed. Why is this so? I want to talk about power and understanding, metaphysics and freedom, which Prevot so elegantly shapes and tempers through prayer. I want to ask whether we are each haunted in our own ways by traditions of interpretation rather than individual thinkers, and how that blinds (and helps) us.

      Thank you, Andrew, for your considerable patience with me. I hope that we may begin again as we continue.

Shares