Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection.
The history of religious thought can be understood as a series of attempts to conceptualize the experience of the transcendent. Methodological, philosophical, and practical concerns now impose themselves upon attempts- never easy in any age - to reflect upon the character of religious experience. Modernity is in some sense defined by the very reversal of the relationship between interpretation and experience. Categories of rational reflection have come to define the character or even the possibility of transcendence and so foreclose the requisite openness to religious mystery. In so doing, modern thought risks losing not only the meaning but also the possibility of experiencing the mystery of transcendence. How, then, can one begin to render intelligible so universally profound a phenomenon as the occasional irruption of the transcendent in temporal souls?
In this collection of essays, the distinguished Yale theologian and phenomenologist of religion Louis Dupre sketches ways in which religious mystery may once again be asserted in modern intellectual terms. Believers and nonbelievers alike are inclined either to segregate religious experience to a discrete subjective (or irrational) sphere or to ignore the datum of religious experience altogether. Yet, Dupre contends, "the human response to an essentially ungraspable mystery" (vii) must be taken seriously as a datum for philosophical consideration. Any philosophy which fails to do so fails to give an account of a persistent and profound aspect of the human condition.
These nine essays, originally published in diverse places between 1982 and 1992, show Dupre's characteristic ability to pose the most fundamental questions in their sharpest aspect and to treat them with precision, rigor, and grace. Those familiar with Dupre's work, especially Passage to Modernity (1993), will detect echoes of arguments sustained elsewhere at greater length. Nonetheless, Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection stands on its own as a three-pronged foray into philosophical method, religious symbolization, and the interpretation of religious experience. His approach is not analytical or linguistic, but decidedly phenomenological. "To isolate the experience, as some romantic thinkers did, results in a loss of objective content. On the other side, restricting the religious content to a set of objective social symbols, as earlier sociologists and cultural anthropologists used to do, leaves us nothing but the scaffolding of the living act. Only when considering the two components as intrinsically united can philosophy grasp the intentionality proper to the religious act. To do so . . . requires a careful phenomenological description of the act as well as a full awareness of the distinctive kind of truth the act pursues" (vii-viii).
Dupre strives to take account of the modern turn to the subject while maintaining the revealed givenness of truth as disclosed. The phenomenological method, especially as developed in the work of Dumery, Van der Leeuw, Scheler, and Husserl, is able to embrace the essential elements of both classical illumination theory and the modern philosophical emphasis on the constitutive role of the subject. "A process of cogitation that results in an intuition of what is essential in the appearances shares a fundamental assumption with the ancient illumination theory, namely that in truth the real discloses itself - it appears with its own evidence. The road to the evidential intuition may be paved by the transcendental subject, but in the final intuition, reality genuinely discloses itself. The rational processes that precede the intuition do not constitute its final justification" (17).
The understanding of truth as disclosure stands over and against the modern conflation of experience and reason as separate from faith. Such a conflation has profound consequences for all religious traditions, which stress the moral or ontological aspects of truth as opposed to the cognitive elements. "Truth refers to being, rather than to knowledge" (19). Yet, the predominant modes of understanding the truth claims of religion are decidedly cognitive. Assessing the strengths and weakness of "correspondence" and "coherence" theories of truth, Dupre ultimately stresses the power of truth understood in terms of ontological disclosure. "Allowing things to be, to disclose themselves in the open, is the very essence of freedom" (34). This freedom also bears its particular authority: "The reality that we experience - in this case, the transcendent reality as communicated in revelation - defines the nature of the experience and endows it with its own authority - not the other way around" (39). Only disclosure, Dupre argues, is best suited to understanding the nature of religious truth because it is less tainted by modern subjectivism and so remains open to the experience of presence.
At some point, all religious truth claims collide with the problem of evil. In a stunningly concise survey of the logical alternatives, Dupre argues that many classical accounts of theodicy constrain God to unjust and unjustifiable conceptions of the divine nature. He is surely right when he observes that the dependence of creation upon its Creator must be conceived in ways other than in terms of strictly efficient causality. Augustine's account of privatio boni - itself an aspect of formal causality - also comes under attack. "A genuine, religious theodicy begins by accepting creation as it is (including its evil) as a visible expression of God's nature, rather than by dictating a priori what a divine expression must be like" (49). Dupre reconciles created autonomy with divine goodness with a version of process theology, in which God actively responds to and participates in human suffering. "In giving birth to the finite, God himself inevitably assumes a certain passivity in regard to the autonomy of finite being, a passivity that may render him vulnerable and that indeed, according to the Christian mystery of the Incarnation, has induced him personally to share the very suffering of finite being" (64).
The separation of the realms of nature and grace has caused a "disincarnation" of theology in the modern age. Scripture and Nature provided the two books of medieval exegesis and commentary. The turn to language as separated from nature has made a third, distinctively human mirror of nature. Beauty as a category of meaning has become subject to rationality ever narrowly construed. By way of response to this restricted field of meaning Dupre provides a lucid introduction to the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, especially Balthasar's attempt to restore to the "created form . . . its ability to express the divine" (72). Balthasar insists upon "the aesthetic priority of the radiating form of creation and redemption over all human creativity." In theological terms, that means "that in the Incarnation God essentially expresses himself in a divine form" (70). Art understood as icon conceals divine grace, whereas art as manifest form of God's presence. "As in the work of art, no ulterior reality hides behind the form: the form, totally manifest, adduces its own evidential power. Incomprehensibility constitutes as much a positive property in the form of God's revelation as the continuing mystery does in a beloved person" (76).
God's incomprehensibility has always been both the starting and ending point of negative theology. How can one use finite predicates - finite in content and in number - to express the infinite or Absolute? Dupre argues that any negative theology must logically end in affirmation - the negation itself must be negated. "A consistent negative theology reduces the creation . . . to an intrinsically unintelligible event and excludes the possibility of any kind of revelation of the divine nature" (93). Dupre evokes what is often overlooked in most accounts of negative theology - that the "practice of spiritual life consists not in seeing God in a pre-existing image but in becoming an image through greater unity" with God (97-98). The significant power of symbols derives from the presence they disclose. "Symbols do not signify because they are thought to be revealed, but they are selected to reveal because they are endowed with a natural significance" (100). In opposing the symbolic and the real, modern thought has obscured the nature and function of symbols and in so doing has deadened our ability to apprehend their intrinsic meaning.
Alongside beauty and symbol, the shape of time has been warped by modern habits of thought. Dupre describes ritual as "the Divine play of time." Modernity, with its exclusively rectilinear conception of time and a restless orientation only toward the future has no patience for ritual, which strives to unite past, present and future in a single timeless act. Rites, and the serious play-acting which comprise them, are not commemorations but transformations of time, demarcations of sacred space and time in which history acquires a different and richer meaning. At risk is nothing less than the possibility of Redemption. "With the sense of a reversible past has vanished the sense of a meaningful present. It was ritual's task to preserve both" (86). Ritual drama is preserved in the modern age by secular drama - the projection onto simpler action of the mythical realities of character. Dupre emphasizes how vicarious participation in literary drama can be analogous to ritual in constituting a paradigm of meaning. Yet, one wonders whether the uniquely modern forms of drama - film and, especially, television - can ultimately sustain a sufficient analogy to ritual's capacity to transform time and, with it, the participants in the ritual.
Ritual and tradition sustain interpretations of experience across the centuries. Dupre uses a consideration of the work of Edward Schillebeeckx to address how the experience of those who witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus can remain meaningful across so great a historical distance. "How can the historically conditioned truth of one generation be the basis for that of another generation? . . . Clearly there must be a causal connection between the first, privileged experience and all later ones. At the same time, the present experience must be genuinely new, since the elements of interpretation, integral parts of the experience itself, have changed" (110). Too great an emphasis on either the initial experience or on contingent terms of interpretation entails fundamental risks: "relativizing the canonical text may jeopardize the continuity of experience, while giving it priority over the living experience may return us to biblical literalism" (116). Dupre's solution is to speak of "the original revelation event" as entailing a unity of interpretation and experience in which the "primary interpretation enjoys the same privileged status as the experience itself, since it forms an essential part of it" (117). Human experience as the reflective self-understanding of the experience does justice to the contingent cultural elements and the divine givenness of revelation alike.
The reflective self-understanding of experience begs the question of how one begins to articulate what would seem to be the pre-verbal encounter with the divine. Dupre strives to distinguish "the general state of union, which implies a unified vision of reality, from those ecstatic experiences that occasionally accompany it, but by no means constitute its essence" (121). The state of union implies "some reintegration of the created world with God" which is constituted by a "return to the finite through a participation in God's own inner life" (126). The Trinitarian expansion and contraction in divine love "alternates active charity with contemplative solitude." Again, Dupre stresses ontological rather than epistemological categories. "Contemplative love transforms the soul's virtual inexistence in the divine Logos into a living reality" (127). Only in active caritas can the encounter with the divine be articulated and only in the language of love can that encounter begin to be understood.
Does the secular age in which we live offer any hopeful possibilities for religious experience? Theism and atheism have ceased to be pressing issues for most people, ushering in a "humanism beyond atheism." Even for many believers, faith is now rarely shocked, not because it creates problems for other contradictory world views that they may hold "but because they have given up looking for theological solutions in all domains of life" (134). Objective institutions have given way to subjective decision and the equalization of experience has rendered contemporary religion just one among many experiences to be chosen. Yet, the very absence of God in modern secular life may itself disclose God's presence. Just as mystics have confronted their feelings of God's absence and been cast forward on the path of religious pilgrimage, so too the absence of God offers an occasion for religion to exercise its power to reintegrate the diverse elements of the lives of spiritual men and women. "The desert of modern atheism provides the only space in which most of them are forced to encounter the transcendent. . . . Our age has created an emptiness that for the serious God-Seeker attains a religious significance" (139). Such attainment is not the product of choice, but presupposes a fundamental attitude or disposition toward reality. In an age which there is increasingly no obvious place or time to cultivate a religious disposition, these essays by Professor Dupre offer tools for improving the clarity of our intellectual vision and show how even the darkest shadows betray a source of spiritual light.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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