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Review of William Desmond, A Sabbath for Thought

Review of William Desmond, A Sabbath for Thought

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Published by James K.A. Smith
Originally appeared in Modern Theology
Originally appeared in Modern Theology

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Published by: James K.A. Smith on Apr 08, 2011
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“Christianity commandeers and discards all other regimes” (p. 253), his word choiceindicates the spirit in which he encounters opposing views.Furthermore, for a book that claims to see theology as intimately bound to practice,there is a notable absence of attention to actual history or practice, outside of thepreviously-noted sections on Israel’s sacrifice. Knight, for example, traces ideas aboutthe nature of motion from the Stoics to René Girard in one paragraph. The story hetells here, as in so many places in this book, is suggestive and important. It is not,however, rich in attention to material “life, practice, and action” (p. xx). The veryplurality this book rightly and beautifully defends exists in the muddles of a life thisbook does not engage.Given that one of the book’s most interesting and well-developed themes is themodern inability to deal with the issue of unity and plurality, it is particularly dis-turbing that Knight’s attempt to claim the physical as a site of the work of the Spiritnever mentions female bodies. He discusses the work of the Spirit in reproduction inIsrael, develops Adam theology, expounds at length on the nature of sonship, andprovides serious theological consideration of semen and circumcision while nevermentioning Sarah, Hannah, or Mary.A reader can only wonder what sort of authorialdecision led to such an omission. The oversight seems a bit too glaring to have beenaccidental.Nevertheless, this remains an important book and a significant contribution.Knight’s is a creative theological voice that at times demonstrates how careful theol-ogy can be as resonant as poetry and as bold as prophecy. His examples of how tosituate the world’s language within God’s language offer hope to theologians strug-gling to find their place among the fragmented knowledges of modernity and post-modernity. Faced with the flattened and trapped modern world, Knight proclaims,“Nothing has been made impossible by a fall in history. Secularization has madenothing impossible or irrecoverable. The Christian confession of our fall, within thecontext given by the whole liturgy of Christian confession, belongs to the process ofour learning our salvation” (p. 193).Kelly S. Johnson
University of Dayton300 College Park #1530Dayton, OH 45469-1530USAKelly.Johnson@notes.udayton.edu
Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy
by WilliamDesmond (Bronx, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005) xii
362 pp.
Despite being both insightful and prolific, the work of Irish philosopher WilliamDesmond still remains under-appreciated in the wider philosophical community,particularly in North America. However, he has found a welcome reception fromtheologians working on the boundaries of ontology and theology. Indeed, one mightsay that Desmond is the patron philosopher of Radical Orthodoxy. Granted, thereweren’t a lot of applications for the post! (Perhaps the appointment is more akin toAugustine’s appointment to the episcopate.) Nevertheless, Desmond’s philosophy of“the between” could be fairly described as a philosophy of the “suspended middle,”an extended meditation on the
, of the ways in which we are caughtup in the dynamics of participation and “suspension.”This focus on “the between”—resisting both equivocity and univocity, and workingtenaciously to resist the temptations of Hegelian dialectic that would get us
of this
© 2008 The AuthorsJournal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
precarious middle—makes Desmond’s contribution an important, innovative voice incontemporary European philosophy. In particular, Desmond’s account of our “beingbetween” charts a third way through the reductionisms of Enlightenment rationalismand the postmodern critique of “modern” reason, both of which remained trapped bya binary imagination. Desmond articulates a trenchant critique of the postmoderncritique of autonomous reason, not in the name of defending autonomous reason, butin order to point rather to something unthought by both: the “porosity” of thinking,its precarious place “between.” In a similar way, Desmond’s studies collected herebuild a cumulative critique of the regnant paradigm in what we might call “conti-nental philosophy of religion”—not in order to dismiss religion, but instead to chal-lenge the stunted caricatures of such that emerge in these “postmodern” proposals.Their problem, he’ll argue, is that they lack imagination, in contrast to the nimblefinesse of the “majestic sacramental imagination” of the Christian philosophical tra-dition (p. 136). This book gathers together a number of essays that will provide afitting portal into Desmond’s work, particularly for those working at the intersectionof philosophy and theology.That’s not to say that book is without problems; minor quibbles should perhaps bearticulated. For instance, while Desmond is rightly critical of other obfuscating workin European philosophy, the studies collected here could have been helpfully disci-plined by an engagement with the rigors of analytic minimalism. The essays tendtoward the baroque; while sometimes the folds and layers have a literary qualityabout them, at other times (and more often than not) the formulations are just a bit tooponderous. Given the generosity and rigor of Desmond’s thought, it would be inter-esting to see him move out of the provinces of Continental thought and into dialoguewith the mainstream of Anglo-American metaphysics and philosophy of religion.Furthermore, Desmond’s work still exhibits a characteristic that I find increasinglyfrustrating in Continental philosophy of religion: opting for the genre of the essayrather than the rigor of a proper research article or monograph—that is, work thattakes into account (and is accountable
) secondary literature in the field. The studieshere are more on the order of well-crafted essays. This does not diminish their value,but it should change one’s expectations. One will not find here a conversation with thecommunity of scholars—and thus no account of the state of the conversation in thefield, nor any anticipation of critiques, etc. Instead, beyond historical engagementswith Augustine, Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche and others, the only contemporary authorreferenced tends to be (too often?) William Desmond.However, as I say, these are minor quibbles. More important is the heart of hisproject, which carries loud echoes of Pascal (as indicated in chapters 1, 2 and 4 inparticular), whom Desmond praises as “a discordant thinker, who inhabited themiddle space between the
esprit de géometrie
and the
esprit de finesse
” (p. 77). ThesePascalian echoes course through the book, but are heard especially in three related,recurring themes. First, Desmond articulates the Pascalian intuition that we humansare the animals who inhabit this precarious space between being and nothingness,enchanted beasts thrown into the “between.” “What a figment of the imaginationhuman beings are!,” Pascal would scribble. “What a novelty, what monsters!” Thus wehave to learn that, “Man is beyond man” and that “humanity infinitely transcendshumanity” (
, §164). Modernity and postmodernity are both uncomfortable insuch a messy middle, seeking to reduce the human to one or the other. Desmond’swork provides an extended riff on this Pascalian intuition.Second, if the human is a “between” animal, this is also because of its “porosity.”This powerful metaphor appears in each chapter of thebook andevokes a senseof ourbeing open to transcendence without losing our identity or home on the earth. To bebetween is just to be such porous, opened creatures who inhabit an open world, ratherthan the closed, immanentized universe bequeathed to us by modernity’s univocal
© 2008 The AuthorsJournal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
naturalism. Such porosity, he emphasizes, is constitutive of finitude (p. 65). So ratherthan thinking of finitude as closing off transcendence, like constructing a ceiling toshut out the sky, he argues that finitude is characterized by porosity. Finitude is a“happening” and “[i]n its porosity, it is the medium of communications in excess of itsown determinacy and self-determination, and these communications just as commu-nications it cannot claim as its own absolutely. Nothing finite can claim to ownanything absolutely. In a primal sense, nothing is its
simpliciter” (pp. 65–66) OnDesmond’s account, the voices of both modernity and postmodernity have sought toget out of the middle and shut down this porosity, papering over the holes in order totry to forget our natural longing for the transcendent. Thus Desmond’s project is at itsmost incisive when he criticizes the “spell” of “postulatory finitism” that has been caston both modernity and postmodernity, a trance that befalls both Kant and Nietzsche.“Postulatory finitism” (the analytic philosopher might translate as “metaphysicalnaturalism”) parades as a philosophy of finitude that rejects the fictions of Platonicidealism. But it is more (and less) than that: it is not only a philosophy that honorsfinitude but also one that posits
nothing but
nothing but
immanence.And thatmove—that
als ob
—is both unwarranted and shows a lack of imagination (p. 64). Theaxiom for postulatory finitism is: “if you want to think of finitude thus and thus—sayhuman freedom as absolutely autonomous—then no God” (p. 64). But while suchphilosophies of finitude pride themselves on waking us up from the slumbers ofso-called Platonic dreams, Desmond wonders whether they just induce more sleep:A postmodern philosophy of finitude tends to think of itself as awakening fromthe sleep of traditional philosophy, and awakening from Enlightenment reasonthat previously thought of itself as awakening from the sleep of religion andcommon sense. If this postmodern sleeplessness is, in truth, a deeper sleep offinitude, it will be extremely difficult to realize this as such, since this sleep takesitself as the
nec plus ultra
of wakefulness to finitude. (p. 64)But questioning the Emperor’s lack of attire, Desmond simply asks: “Why accept[postulatory finitism]’s “thus and thus,” which might not even have been madeexplicit?” What about questioning whether this just evinces a “lack of imagination”(p. 64)?Here Desmond makes an interesting apologetic move in the spirit of the Husserlianturn to “the things themselves.” “Suppose one’s metaphysical imagination finds itselfin rebellion against the insinuation of the secret suggestion that is secreted by postu-latory finitism?” (pp. 64–65) What if something presses up against such postularyfinitism and threatens to crack the veneer it has spread across our very porosity? Whatif one finds oneself kept up at night by the constant knock of transcendence? What ifthe failure of postulatory finitism is precisely its failure to account for this persistentpushing back from what it has told us isn’t there? Thus Desmond’s critique ofpostulatory finitism does not merely appeal to something like logical incoherence orinternal contradictions; rather, he seeks to out-narrate the story of postulatory finit-ism. Its story can’t account for the ghosts which continue to haunt us. Desmond’saccount of a porous finitude is not better because it is more logical or consistent, butbecause its imagination is more expansive and it is better able to narrate this “pushback” from a persistent transcendence that insinuates itself
our finitude. It is anaccount that well narrates the restlessness of our Augustinian and Pascalian hearts.Finally, Desmond articulates a philosophical anthropology and epistemology thatare consonant with this Pascalian (and Augustinian) vision. This comes to the fore inhis repeated emphasis on the
passio essendi
as prior to the
conatus essendi
(p. 46). Priorto both knowing and being is love and desire. Thus he points to “Augustine:
pondusmeus amor meum
; my love is my weight. I love in a field of attraction that draws me,weights me toward what I love—God. My being as love tilts me to God. I have to go
© 2008 The AuthorsJournal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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