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This first set of reflections hosted by the MLA on the "turn to religion in literary studies" gives us a wide range of questions and issues that could be discussed for a very long time. We hear of new texts that are invited to come under the shelter of "religion and literature," while "religion and literature" itself is invited to take a step or two outside its traditional borders and experience some new possibilities. All this is good. By way of response, I would like to point out a couple of opportunities that have been missed and add a caveat or two about some things that have been said.

For a theologian, it can only seem odd that these first reflections on the "turn to religion" in literary criticism make no reference to its forerunner, the "theological turn" in phenomenology. When Dominique Janicaud first used the expression, "theological turn" was said with something of a sneer, as though the adjective was code for a patent embarrassment; and now the heavy hint of disparagement can hardly be heard. Catholics of a scholarly leaning may well find a parallel in an event in 1942. That's when Pietro Parente, working for the Holy Office, threw the expression la nouvelle theologie at Marie-Dominique Chenu and Louis Charlier, whose work had been critical of the rigid Thomism of the day. (True Catholic theology, it was implied, can never be new.) Over the following years, though, especially with the writings of Henri de Lubac, la nouvelle theologie was partly vindicated (in its questions, if not always in its answers). Without it, there would not have been the aggiormiamento of Vatican II.

The "theological turn": what was intended to be a negative framing, a call for an abrupt change of direction lest priests begin incensing our copies of the Cartesian Meditations, has become an affirmative program that has given new life to phenomenology and may well do so to theology as well. Janicaud's Le tournant theologique de la phenomenologie francaise (1991) took aim at Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, and Michel Henry for smuggling theological assumptions into phenomenological descriptions. And yet the poisoned arrow was deflected and eventually landed uncomfortably close to Janicaud himself: doubts were raised about the correctness and fullness of his understanding of phenomenology. The shield that deflected the arrow was a little volume of essays, Phenomenologie et theologie (1992), in which lean-Louis Chretien, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion argued from diverse positions for an expanded phenomenology that could take account of prayer, saturated phenomena, and revelation. (1) The problem, they said, was not that some people had made illegal moves in the old game of phenomenology; rather, it was that phenomenology had not been faithful to its original program, and had limited its possibilities. The "theological turn" was always other than a theological program; it was an expansion of phenomenology itself, though one that could not help but interest theologians.

The importance of the "theological turn" can best be grasped as showing that phenomenality is far broader and more diverse than Husserl or Heidegger acknowledged in their major works. Husserl knew very well that there are many different sorts of phenomena--color and values, arithmetical numbers and consciousness of time, bodies and golden mountains--and that they give themselves but do not always show themselves. A tree gives itself to me by way of sense perception; a painting of a tree, by way of resemblance; a poem about a tree, by way of being without being; and a shrub that is also a tree (as in Matt. 17:32) may give itself but does not show itself. And so on. For a long time, perhaps always, Husserl was mainly interested in epistemological questions, especially as they relate to the hard sciences (Ideas I leads ineluctably to Ideas III). Hence his insistence on the importance of presence and representation--any intentional experience must either be an objectifying act or rely on one--and hence his tacit restriction of phenomenality to the realm of objects. Heidegger expanded the realm of phenomenality in Sein und Zeit when he redefined "phenomenology" to mean "to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself (Being and Time 58). The category of phenomenality was broadened both in fact and by right, for the being of beings denotes a larger set than the objectness of objects does.

With Henry, however, the category is extended still further to include life, understood in a nonbiological manner so as to embrace the divine life as well as human life. With Marion, the category is stretched to incorporate the phenomenality appropriate not just to common law phenomena (chemicals in a laboratory, for instance) or phenomena that are poor in intuition (real numbers, for example) but to those phenomena that are saturated with intuition, whether they are banal (a lecture) or extraordinary (the risen Christ). (2) Some of these phenomena are visible; others are given but are not visible. Quite independently of Marion's investigation into givenness, Lacoste also widens the category of phenomenality to include the invisible as well as the visible. "Phenomenology is without limits," he says, serenely making a methodological point. In part these words mean that nothing is off limits to phenomenology, neither subjectivity (even though it has been regarded as transcendental) nor God (even though He transcends our words, our concepts, and ens commune). In part those words also mean that the phenomenon is not limited to any one, two or three modes of manifestation. It may appear in perception, but it may equally well appear in anticipation or desire, say (Lacoste, "Liminaire" 11). And in part Lacoste's statement means that phenomenology is not limited to philosophical investigation. Phenomenality is certainly not confined to the realm of perceptible entities, or to the sorts of things philosophers like to talk about. We may discuss the phenomenality of the literary "object," extending the analyses that Derrida made of it--a deconstruction of its objecthood, among other things--while declining to follow him in the complete hollowing out of intuition and the de facto promotion of a new formalism. Consider a line from a poem. I do not hear any sharps or flats when I recite to myelf "The pear-tree flying in the flute," but Kenneth Slessor's image (120) beautifully captures the phenomenality of the flute music: the effect of its lightness and speed on me, the impact of an acute (yet apparently effortless) condensation of many emotions in simple musical phrases, the sense of music having the grace of the pear-tree combined with the freshness of its blossoms, and the roughness of its bark. In Slessor's poem I grasp the music in its self-manifestation--not fully, to be sure--but in some respects more intensely than if I had heard it at a concert. And as a reader of Slessor I am free to attend to the phenomenalities of his line: its sound, its timbre, its pitch, and the power of its metaphor.

It would be idle to say that God has no phenomenality, or that many poets are not aware of it. How could one read Herbert or Hopkins, Claudel or Jacopone di Todi if that were so? Phenomenology, addressed to experience, spreads itself over all the regions of being, seeking to grasp all the bestowals of meaning while suspending the question whether the existence of what is experienced is external or internal. The word "God" in Christianity (and I restrict myself here to my own faith) means in part that God has the right and power to give himself on his own terms: in the reading of scripture, in the proclamation of the word, in prayer, in moral action, and in the sacraments. We understand how the word "God" functions in Christianity only when we recognize that God is irreducible, that he transcends his various phenomenalities (Lacoste, "Perception" 54). He is not limited to the roles granted him by the Church, however. God can give himself in the reading of poetry, in listening to music, in conversation over dinner, in teaching and learning, and in the play of sex. Nor is he restricted to manifest himself in the sphere of experience (as Heidegger thought) or exiled from that sphere by dint of his transcendence (as Husserl thought). For Marion, God gives himself in the mode of counter-experience. Yet we must be careful here, for it cannot be ruled out a priori that God may give Himself in the mode of experience. Think of Thomas's words to the risen Jesus in John 20:28. That said, human experience is tailored to the reception of objects, Marion argues, so when a nonobjective phenomenon is given to us it contests the condition of possibility for experience. What characteristically shows itself in "religious experience," Marion maintains, is a radical resistance to the forms of experience; sometimes it will be shown by way of excess and at other times by way of disappointment. Either way, we are mastered by what we try to master, and the index of being mastered may be confusion, humility, exaltation, praise, or even rage. "Thou mastering me / God!," Hopkins cries out at the start of "The Wreck of the Deutschland." Those four words compress much that is at issue in the counter-experience of God.

Literary criticism, which has never been shy of gleaning from adjacent disciplines, has not yet taken what it needs from the current generation of French phenomenologists, even when we are told that phenomenology is without limits and therefore perfectly able to be at home in talk about writing and reading literature. Perhaps we think, a little ruefully, that books such as Roman Ingarden's The Literary Work of Art and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art and Mikel Dufrenne's The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience were never of much help to us, and we may think back to the failed attempt by Georges Poulet to develop a phenomenological criticism, a "criticism of consciousness." (3) Yet, especially in its turn to religion, criticism has much to learn from the first "theological turn." We can, as I have said, learn to rethink the literary "object," and in doing so learn to be attentive to a wider range of phenomenality in literature than we have been used to acknowledging. And of course we can learn some specific lessons from people whose phenomenological work has been mainly in philosophy.

Think of Marion, whose recent Au lieu de soi is a provocation to literary studies. (4) For here he shows very carefully how an understanding of the ways in which intuition can saturate intentionality can be used to read one of the foundational narratives of the West: St. Augustine's Confessions. The same can presumably be done when reading the poems of St. John of the Cross, Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, or narratives such as St. Theresa of Avila's Autobiography or Shusaku Endo's Silence, perhaps anything sufficiently rich in the field of "religion and literature." Think also of Henry, novelist as well as philosopher, whose essays--"Phenomenologie materielle et langage (ou pathos et langage)," (325-48) for example--can help us talk more intelligently about deep subjectivity in the poetry of John Ashbery or more freshly about the religious criticism of Harold Bloom. Think too of Chretien's studies of call and response, promises and other speech acts, and his writings on the body in Keats and Verlaine, all mediated by his own experience as a poet. And, finally, recall Lacoste's important reflections on the work of the artwork in "Le monde et l'absence d'oeuvre," not to mention his fine study of C. S. Lewis's Narnia.

Those of us involved in the "turn to religion" in literary studies need to spend some time not only with phenomenology after the "theological turn" but also with theology itself. To be interdisciplinary is not only, or even primarily, to extend the borders of an existing discipline--here, literary criticism--but to make something new out of two or more disciplines. We are required to become streetwise in several neighborhoods at once. Consequently, we cannot excuse ourselves from learning about biblical criticism or systematic theology because our expertise is in literary criticism. Nor can we take our cues only from those who wander into the field of criticism. To learn about St. Paul, for example, is important: he was the first theoretician of Christianity. Yet these days, in the half-life of "theory," we find literary critics going to Agamben, Badiou, and Zizek in order to find out about St. Paul rather than going first to Brendan Byrne, Judith Kovacs, and E. P. Sanders (or, for that matter, Origen, Theodoret of Cyrus, and St. Thomas Aquinas). (4) Now it would not have been out of order for Agamben, Badiou, and Zizek to read more deeply about St Paul before writing on him. We would have been saved some time and some trees. Of course, Agamben, Badiou, and Zizek do not simply repeat what scholars of Paul have said; but to distinguish their insights from their blind spots one needs to know the scholarly literature about Paul. What a pity it would be if interdisciplinary work were to become a loose metaphor for amateurism. Many possible futures for "religion and literature," an interdiscipline if ever there were one, would immediately start to close.

I find it surprising that little attention has been given so far to the importance and limits of a theological aesthetics in the "religious turn" of literary criticism. I am not suggesting that one must simply digest and apply the procedures, polemics, and insights of Hans Urs yon Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord to a wider range of literary texts than those on which he bases his case. I am suggesting, instead, that one must read that work with care, paying attention to its limits--its Christology, its prizing of certain kinds of art over others--and give due consideration to what a theology of literature, and indeed a theology of literary criticism, could be for us today. (5) Such a theology would attend to what lean Wahl distinguishes as two modes of transcendence: the transascendant, in which one is drawn up beyond phenomena (whether to the other person or God) and the transdescendant, in which one is lured down to what precedes phenomena (being before it is named, conditions of possibility that cannot appear) (Existence 34-38). Modern criticism from Kant to Derrida has been oriented to the transdescendant, seeking to explain religious transcendence in terms of what cannot appear because it precedes phenomena or language or both. Yet there are as many modes of phenomenality as there are modes of being, and the transascendant has its own range of phenomenalities. For example, the value of goodness appears in my mind as I anticipate doing something for a friend, as I remember something done for me by a stranger when I was a child, or as I imagine doing something in circumstances that have not yet come about and may never come about. Is it possible to watch a play by Shakespeare attentively, or to read a novel by Tolstoy with care, or meditate richly on several cantos of Dante's Commedia, without considering differences of precisely this sort?

The religious turn in literary criticism rightly goes in two directions: toward what a religious or a theological lens can help us discern when we are reading literature, and toward what literature can help us to see when reading scripture. Consider literature. These days it is hardly news to find religious significance in the stories of Flannery O'Connor or Leonid Andreyev; yet it may well be valuable to perform the "theological reduction," as Lacoste calls it, on Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments or recognize how it has been variously performed in George Herbert's The Temple (Lacoste, "La frontiere," 28). And it may be original and worthwhile to read poems, plays, and prose narratives in terms of diverse modes of phenomenality. Students of "religion and literature" might find the idea a hard one to resist, since we have so many texts on hand that call for such a reading. And consider scripture. It is scarcely news to say that the parables of Jesus rely on metaphor and narrative; yet it may be productive in more than one way to point out that, in telling some of those parables, Jesus performs a conversion of the gaze so that we are aware of the Kingdom being given to us even though we cannot see it. Jesus as phenomenologist: it may be a belated truth of the old saying of the monastic schools ipsa philosophia Christus! In the same spirit, Jesus's use of metaphor and narrative may be the original truth of Husserl's insight that the aesthetic gaze and the phenomenological gaze are very close to one another ("Une lettre" 14). The parables are themselves stories of manifestation, of the revelation of what God is like and of what God is unlike; and if we are to read them at all well we must make use of literary criticism and phenomenology.

The figure of return is always delusive: things never return to the same place or come back in the same way, and we can never quite find our way to them, even if we wanted to. (6) There should be no question of a return to an earlier formation of "religion and literature," the age of Walter J. Ong, SJ, and Nathan A. Scott, Jr., only of a turn to religion in literature and criticism. Or, rather, a turn to theology as well as religion: to theology in its apophatic modes as well as its cataphatic modes. We do well to look back to earlier scholarship, especially biblical criticism and theology, but with a view to learn from it and move ahead in our own ways. We do well also to look beyond our borders, especially beyond the naive positivism of historicism that has become such a dead hand in literary studies over the past two decades. We need conversion--a conversion of the gaze--for without it we shall not see the invisible, only the visible. We would know only a little of the kingdom of phenomenality. We would know only a little of literature, a little of religion, a little of "religion and literature."

The University of Virginia


Byrne, Brendan. Romans. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical, 1996.

Chretien, Jean-Louis. Corps a corps: a lecoute de l'oeuvre d'art. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1997.

--. L'appel et la reponse. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1992.

--. L'arche de la parole. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1998.

--. La voix nue: phenomenologie de la promesse. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1990.

--. Saint Augustine et les actes de parole. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002.

Dominique Janicaud. Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn." Trans. Bernard G. Prusak. New York: Fordham UP, 2000.

Dufrenne, Mikel. The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Trans. Edward S. Casey. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973.

Henry, Michel. "Phenomenologie materielle et langage (ou pathos et langage)." Phenomenologie de la vie. 4 vols. III: De l'art et du politique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004. 325-48.

Husserl, Edmund. "Une lettre de Husserl a Hofmannsthal." Trans. Eliane Escoubas. La Part de l'oeil, 7 (1991): 14.

Ingarden, Roman. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

--. The Literary Work of Art: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Ontology, Logic, and Theory of Literature. Trans. and intro George G. Grabowicz. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

Kovacs, Judith L. I Corinthians: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, The Church's Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2005.

Lacoste, Jean-Yves. "La frontiere absente." La phenomenalite de Dieu. Neuf etudes. Paris: Cerf, 2008.28.

--. "Le monde et rabsence d'oeuvre." Le monde et l'absence d'oeuvre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000. 55-106.

--."Liminaire? La phenomenalite de Dieu: Neuf etudes. Paris: Cerf, 2008. 11.

--. Narnia, Monde Theologique?: Theologie anonyme et christologie pseudonyme. Geneve: Ad Solem, 2005.

--. Note sur le temps: Essai sur les raisons de la memoire et de l'esperance. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1990.

--. "Perception, transcendance, connaissance de Dieu? La phenomenalite de Dieu: Neuf etudes. Paris: Cerf, 2008. 54.

Marion, Jean-Luc. Au lieu de soi: L'approche de Saint Augustin. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008.

--. In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena. Trans. Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud. New York: Fordham UP, 2002.

Murphy, Michael P. A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar, Postmodernism, and the Catholic Imagination. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Gravity of Thought. Trans. Francois Faffoul and Gregory Recco. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1997.

Poulet, Georges. Studies in Human Time. Trans. Elliott Coleman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1956.

Sanders, E. P. Paul. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Slessor, Kenneth. "Full Orchestra." Selected Poems. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1975.

Wahl, Jean. Existence humaine et transcendance. Neuchatel: Editions de la Baconniere, 1944. 34-38.


(1) The volume also contained an essay by Paul Ricoeur with some important caveats. It is worth noting that Jean-Yves Lacoste did not contribute to this collection. The importance of his first book, Note sur le temps: Essai sur les raisons de la memoire et de l'esperance (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1990), cannot be underestimated, however. Janicaud exempts Lacoste from his criticisms in his The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology; see Phenomenology and the "Theological Turn," trans. Bernard G. Prusak and others (100 n. 23. Lacoste's later works remain of cardinal importance in the conversation between phenomenology and theology.

(2) See Jean-Luc Marion, In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena. See Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Ontology, Logic, and Theory of Literature and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, and Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Also see, for example, Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time.

(4) See, for example, Brendan Byme, Romans; Judith L. Kovacs, I Corinthians: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators; and E. P. Sanders, Paul.

(5) For one possible avenue, see Michael P. Murphy, A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar, Postmodernism, and the Catholic Imagination.

(6) See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Gravity of Thought, chapter 3.
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Author:Hart, Kevin
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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