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Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity.

Fergus Kerr's new book, rooted in his Stanton Lectures delivered in Cambridge in 1994-95, is not so much `philosophy of religion' as religion in philosophy (cf. p. vii). It is a lucid and fascinating discussion of theological themes and ideas in recent philosophical writing by one of Britain's most distinguished philosopher-theologians. Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch, Luce Irigaray, Stanley Cavell and Charles Taylor are inserted between a discussion of Karl Barth and Karl Rahner -- the first as a christological metaphysician and the transcendental Thomist as a rather post-modern unsystematic christocentric theologian. It is a learned theologian's summary of the religious component in various major twentieth-century philosophers.

There is little of Kerr's own explicit viewpoint in the text; the book is cautious, expository and illuminating, but gently chiding. However, the choice is not entirely clear; why not Whitehead, Bergson, Gadamer, Weil, or MacIntyre? It is not immediately evident whether the author wishes to engage with the great minds of the century or the trend-setters. And why the discussion of the two most distinguished professors of theology this century, Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, in a volume devoted to the immortal longing of semi-pagans? Perhaps Heidegger provides the thread; roughly contemporary with Barth, his influence on Rahner, Irigaray, Cavell and Taylor, is indisputable. Another closely related theme is the Platonic ascent of love in Diotima's speech in the Symposium and the attempt of various contemporary philosophers to struggle with the legacy of denigration of the `here and now' in favour of the transcendent perfect yonder. Kerr's chosen group hovers between the flat positivist rejection of transcendence as pure illusion and the austerity and sterility of the invisible, immutable, intelligible Being of the Platonists which seems to diminish -- even extinguish -- humanity. All these thinkers in the wake of Heidegger are concerned with immortal longings in a more fluid, contingent, and dynamic and mortal context: Being and Time. Even Murdoch, in her avowal of Platonism is part of a debate with Heidegger (p. 68), and her Platonism is shorn of many of the metaphysical components of the old Platonic succession from Proclus to Descartes and Leibniz. Her demythologized Platonism presents metaphysics as a guide to morals as opposed to the Platonic-Kantian thesis that morals are the guide to metaphysics. Kerr's `agenda in the philosophy of religion ... to include consideration of religion in philosophy' (p. vii) produces a brilliant and provocative book which should be included in reading lists for the philosophy of religion.

There is nothing artificial or forced in Kerr's exposition of the somewhat hidden religious agenda in modern thought. On the contrary: Cavell is known for his work on Wittgenstein; Taylor on Hegel; Murdoch on Plato -- all these sources are in some profound sense religious; even if hard to associate with a form of institutional religion or established theology. Kerr dwells on the odd ambivalence of Murdoch's work, intensely religious and yet severely critical of Christianity and her dislike of the apparent crudity of Christianity. Cavell's rejection of formal religion is presented by Kerr as nothing more than liberal dogmatism (p. 126) and Taylor's apparent insouciance about the exact doctrines of Christian theology is criticized (p. 154) despite, or perhaps because of, his affirmation of the Christian religion.

In full acknowledgement of the style, imagination and rigour of the book, the reviewer would like to pursue some of the implications of the underlying theological position. Kerr seems to be presenting his case essentially from a theologically conservative perspective, but one stripped of foundationalist-transcendental ambitions. Kerr is critical of Platonic contemplation and Cartesian consciousness; he is disapproving of the `liberal-existentialist individualism which has been unmasked and discredited by philosophers such as Heidegger, Iris Murdoch and Luce Irigaray' (p. 136). Indeed, Cavell, Murdoch, Irigaray and Taylor can all serve to expose the `fantasy of the unbounded worldless self' (p. 137) and thus serve as a sort of preparation for the gospel. The sombre sub-text is stated in the preface:

Uncovering the theological conceptions at work in the projects of these philosophers, as well as sometimes clarifying what they are up to, often reveals the inadequacy of their assumptions about theology -- Christian theology in all these cases. (That is in itself a measure of the vaunted pluralism and openness of modern Western culture.) It is chastening for theologians to discover how little many of their contemporaries, in what were related fields of study not so long ago, know about Christianity, and how deeply they misconceive it.

This describes a real dilemma but it does not yet prescribe a method for fruitful dialogue. It implies a subtle recapturing of secular territory, a project which would seem to derive its hermeneutical legitimacy from the assumption that the philosophers have misunderstood Christianity. This in turn raises further questions about the identity of Christianity; once we have entered into dialogue we might allow for the possibility that views from outside could inform our inside view of Christianity -- perhaps views from without should be allowed to help inform our conception of what the Christian religion is.

Furthermore, there is a theological tradition stemming from Plato and Aristotle which is closely related to, and yet not identical with, Christian theology. The `first philosophy' as Aristotle conceived it was `theology'. Thought about a first `principle' or the `divine' was an integral part of the philosophical canon before Christianity, and remained so into late Antiquity. Proclus' Elements of Theology is a good example of a late pagan philosophical theology. Thus Kerr is entirely justified in criticizing Nussbaum's lack of sympathy for this aspect of Aristotle (pp. 16-18). But it is hence no surprise that many modern thinkers raise theological issues when reflecting as philosophers. Argumentative, rational theology is just part of the philosophical heritage, even if it lies dormant in most modern philosophy departments. The recovery of this theological tradition within philosophy might help to encourage genuine dialogue with both cultured despisers of Christianity, and indeed the other great theistic religions of Judaism and Islam.
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Author:Hedley, Douglas
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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