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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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146 Reviews

“Christianity commandeers and discards all other regimes” (p. 253), his word choice indicates 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 the previously-noted sections on Israel’s sacrifice. Knight, for example, traces ideas about the nature of motion from the Stoics to René Girard in one paragraph. The story he tells 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 very plurality this book rightly and beautifully defends exists in the muddles of a life this book does not engage. Given that one of the book’s most interesting and well-developed themes is the modern inability to deal with the issue of unity and plurality, it is particularly disturbing that Knight’s attempt to claim the physical as a site of the work of the Spirit never mentions female bodies. He discusses the work of the Spirit in reproduction in Israel, develops Adam theology, expounds at length on the nature of sonship, and provides serious theological consideration of semen and circumcision while never mentioning Sarah, Hannah, or Mary. A reader can only wonder what sort of authorial decision led to such an omission. The oversight seems a bit too glaring to have been accidental. Nevertheless, this remains an important book and a significant contribution. Knight’s is a creative theological voice that at times demonstrates how careful theology can be as resonant as poetry and as bold as prophecy. His examples of how to situate the world’s language within God’s language offer hope to theologians struggling to find their place among the fragmented knowledges of modernity and postmodernity. Faced with the flattened and trapped modern world, Knight proclaims, “Nothing has been made impossible by a fall in history. Secularization has made nothing impossible or irrecoverable. The Christian confession of our fall, within the context given by the whole liturgy of Christian confession, belongs to the process of our learning our salvation” (p. 193). Kelly S. Johnson University of Dayton 300 College Park #1530 Dayton, OH 45469-1530 USA Kelly.Johnson@notes.udayton.edu

Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy by William Desmond (Bronx, New York: Fordham University Press, 2005) xii + 362 pp.
Despite being both insightful and prolific, the work of Irish philosopher William Desmond still remains under-appreciated in the wider philosophical community, particularly in North America. However, he has found a welcome reception from theologians working on the boundaries of ontology and theology. Indeed, one might say that Desmond is the patron philosopher of Radical Orthodoxy. Granted, there weren’t a lot of applications for the post! (Perhaps the appointment is more akin to Augustine’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 metaxu of methexis, of the ways in which we are caught up in the dynamics of participation and “suspension.” This focus on “the between”—resisting both equivocity and univocity, and working tenaciously to resist the temptations of Hegelian dialectic that would get us out of this
© 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Reviews 147
precarious middle—makes Desmond’s contribution an important, innovative voice in contemporary European philosophy. In particular, Desmond’s account of our “being between” charts a third way through the reductionisms of Enlightenment rationalism and the postmodern critique of “modern” reason, both of which remained trapped by a binary imagination. Desmond articulates a trenchant critique of the postmodern critique of autonomous reason, not in the name of defending autonomous reason, but in 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 here build a cumulative critique of the regnant paradigm in what we might call “continental philosophy of religion”—not in order to dismiss religion, but instead to challenge 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 nimble finesse of the “majestic sacramental imagination” of the Christian philosophical tradition (p. 136). This book gathers together a number of essays that will provide a fitting portal into Desmond’s work, particularly for those working at the intersection of philosophy and theology. That’s not to say that book is without problems; minor quibbles should perhaps be articulated. For instance, while Desmond is rightly critical of other obfuscating work in European philosophy, the studies collected here could have been helpfully disciplined by an engagement with the rigors of analytic minimalism. The essays tend toward the baroque; while sometimes the folds and layers have a literary quality about them, at other times (and more often than not) the formulations are just a bit too ponderous. Given the generosity and rigor of Desmond’s thought, it would be interesting to see him move out of the provinces of Continental thought and into dialogue with the mainstream of Anglo-American metaphysics and philosophy of religion. Furthermore, Desmond’s work still exhibits a characteristic that I find increasingly frustrating in Continental philosophy of religion: opting for the genre of the essay rather than the rigor of a proper research article or monograph—that is, work that takes into account (and is accountable to) secondary literature in the field. The studies here 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 the community of scholars—and thus no account of the state of the conversation in the field, nor any anticipation of critiques, etc. Instead, beyond historical engagements with Augustine, Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche and others, the only contemporary author referenced tends to be (too often?) William Desmond. However, as I say, these are minor quibbles. More important is the heart of his project, which carries loud echoes of Pascal (as indicated in chapters 1, 2 and 4 in particular), whom Desmond praises as “a discordant thinker, who inhabited the middle space between the esprit de géometrie and the esprit de finesse” (p. 77). These Pascalian echoes course through the book, but are heard especially in three related, recurring themes. First, Desmond articulates the Pascalian intuition that we humans are the animals who inhabit this precarious space between being and nothingness, enchanted beasts thrown into the “between.” “What a figment of the imagination human beings are!,” Pascal would scribble. “What a novelty, what monsters!” Thus we have to learn that, “Man is beyond man” and that “humanity infinitely transcends humanity” (Pensées, §164). Modernity and postmodernity are both uncomfortable in such a messy middle, seeking to reduce the human to one or the other. Desmond’s work 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 the book and evokes a sense of our being open to transcendence without losing our identity or home on the earth. To be between is just to be such porous, opened creatures who inhabit an open world, rather than the closed, immanentized universe bequeathed to us by modernity’s univocal
© 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

148 Reviews
naturalism. Such porosity, he emphasizes, is constitutive of finitude (p. 65). So rather than thinking of finitude as closing off transcendence, like constructing a ceiling to shut 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 its own determinacy and self-determination, and these communications just as communications it cannot claim as its own absolutely. Nothing finite can claim to own anything absolutely. In a primal sense, nothing is its own simpliciter” (pp. 65–66) On Desmond’s account, the voices of both modernity and postmodernity have sought to get out of the middle and shut down this porosity, papering over the holes in order to try to forget our natural longing for the transcendent. Thus Desmond’s project is at its most incisive when he criticizes the “spell” of “postulatory finitism” that has been cast on both modernity and postmodernity, a trance that befalls both Kant and Nietzsche. “Postulatory finitism” (the analytic philosopher might translate as “metaphysical naturalism”) parades as a philosophy of finitude that rejects the fictions of Platonic idealism. But it is more (and less) than that: it is not only a philosophy that honors finitude but also one that posits nothing but finitude, nothing but immanence. And that move—that als ob—is both unwarranted and shows a lack of imagination (p. 64). The axiom for postulatory finitism is: “if you want to think of finitude thus and thus—say human freedom as absolutely autonomous—then no God” (p. 64). But while such philosophies of finitude pride themselves on waking us up from the slumbers of so-called Platonic dreams, Desmond wonders whether they just induce more sleep: A postmodern philosophy of finitude tends to think of itself as awakening from the sleep of traditional philosophy, and awakening from Enlightenment reason that previously thought of itself as awakening from the sleep of religion and common sense. If this postmodern sleeplessness is, in truth, a deeper sleep of finitude, it will be extremely difficult to realize this as such, since this sleep takes itself 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 made explicit?” 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 Husserlian turn to “the things themselves.” “Suppose one’s metaphysical imagination finds itself in rebellion against the insinuation of the secret suggestion that is secreted by postulatory finitism?” (pp. 64–65) What if something presses up against such postulary finitism and threatens to crack the veneer it has spread across our very porosity? What if one finds oneself kept up at night by the constant knock of transcendence? What if the failure of postulatory finitism is precisely its failure to account for this persistent pushing back from what it has told us isn’t there? Thus Desmond’s critique of postulatory finitism does not merely appeal to something like logical incoherence or internal contradictions; rather, he seeks to out-narrate the story of postulatory finitism. Its story can’t account for the ghosts which continue to haunt us. Desmond’s account of a porous finitude is not better because it is more logical or consistent, but because its imagination is more expansive and it is better able to narrate this “push back” from a persistent transcendence that insinuates itself in our finitude. It is an account that well narrates the restlessness of our Augustinian and Pascalian hearts. Finally, Desmond articulates a philosophical anthropology and epistemology that are consonant with this Pascalian (and Augustinian) vision. This comes to the fore in his repeated emphasis on the passio essendi as prior to the conatus essendi (p. 46). Prior to both knowing and being is love and desire. Thus he points to “Augustine: pondus meus 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 Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Reviews 149
against the ingrained balance of my being to upset this tilt” (p. 35). In more Pascalian terms, there is “an implicit intelligibility to the heart”—an irreducible “knowing” that can never be made completely explicit (pp. 95–96). The desire to know is testament to our porosity, an expression or trace of “a more primal ontological reverence” (p. 268). Desmond’s work is a nuanced but frontal assault on the postulatory finitism that characterizes many of the intellectual forces of our day, from lingering modern rationalisms to so-called postmodern “religion without religion” to the dogmatic purveyors of metaphysical naturalism under the cloak of “science.” Its rigor and boldness deserve a wide reading. James K. A. Smith Calvin College Department of Philosophy 1845 Knollcrest SE Grand Rapids, MI 49506 USA jkasmith@calvin.edu

© 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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