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Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas.

Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas. By Hent de Vries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Pp. xxxiv + 720. Paper, ISBN 0-8018-8017-3, $24.95. Cloth, ISBN 0-8018-8016-5, $65.00.

"There is the painful awareness that in [this book] so many gaps remain to be filled in" (xiii). So writes Hent de Vries in his preface to this English translation. Given the sheer heft of this tome, one might well be thankful those gaps remain unfilled. As it is, Minimal Theologies is a text of maximal intensity and multilayered density, one not well suited for those as yet unschooled in the thought of Theodor Adorno and Emmanuel Levinas. Written from within the wider tradition of the Frankfurt School, the text does something that no text before has done: namely, juxtapose Adorno and Levinas to create a theological conversation. Even though the text stands on its own, in effect it functions as the first installment of a trilogy with de Vries's other books, Philosophy and the Turn to Religion (1999) and Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida (2002), and so is best read in tandem with them. Although de Vries writes clearly and engagingly, his argument traverses a wide swath. Besides highly nuanced accounts of the principal figures, there are substantial discussions of Jurgen Habermas, Soren Kierkegaard, G. W. F. Hegel, and Jacques Derrida along the way. In light of the volumes complexity and impressive erudition, a review such as this can hardly do it justice. Yet we can at least examine what de Vries means by a "minimal" theology and consider whether such a theology proves truly helpful.

So what exactly is "minimal theology"? de Vries thinks it is the only kind of theology possible in the present age. As he puts it: "philosophical theology ... is condemned to a certain marginality. The expression minimal theology or even theology in pianissimo ... alludes to this position at the fringes of discourse (72). A "Theologie in pianissimo" (the original title of this text) attempts to navigate between classical (biblical / dogmatic) theology and a science of religion. It focuses on the intrusions of the other / das Andere / l'Autre into the realm of the same / das Gleiche / le Meme. By concentrating on what de Vries alternatively calls the "ab-solute," the infinite, or the tertium datur, theology moves both beyond onto-theology (in which God enters philosophical discourse only on philosophy's terms) and beyond any hope for absolute knowledge. In place of symmetry or adequation of theological knowledge, there is radical dissymmetry and "in-adequation" Whereas Habermas is against any relationships that are asymmetrical or nonreciprocal, both Adorno and Levinas think that attempts at symmetry always do the other an injustice.

What, though, do Adorno and Levinas have to teach theology? Adorno would certainly seem an unlikely candidate, being neither theologian nor theist. Yet de Vries thinks the very structure of Adorno's thought "anticipates" minimal theology. In the same way that any "true philosophy is 'essentially not expoundable'" (167), so any truly orthodox discussion of God is impossible for de Vries. Interestingly enough, Adorno expressly links this problem with the biblical prohibition of images. These concerns are, in turn, deepened by Levinas. Unlike Adorno, Levinas writes explicitly as a Jew, and thus his writings range from philosophy to Talmudic commentary. Yet de Vries sees both Adorno and Levinas questioning the very foundations of reason, which in turn questions the possibility of theological discourse. While Adorno provides us with a "dialectical critique of dialectics" Levinas supplies a "phenomenological critique of phenomenology" (529). In place of traditional dialectic in which a universal is necessary, Adorno attempts to think radical singularity by way of a critique of ideology and philosophy itself. Similarly, Levinas attempts to think a metaphysical anarchy by pushing transcendence virtually to the limit of absence. Despite their greatly differing theological commitments, then, de Vries insists that we can read Adorno's "anti" and Levinas's "hyper" as working together to overcome both naturalism and immanentism. Each tries to work toward a fundamentally paradoxical formulation of transcendence as undecidable and aporetic. The result is a theology that is neither kataphatic (positive) nor apophatic (negative). Instead, as de Vries quotes Derrida, "the 'theological' is a determined moment in the total movement of the trace" (31). That trace, of course, is the trace of the transcendent.

Yet does such a move truly "help" theology? On de Vries's account, this middle way or tertium datur can be interpreted as being in the service of an orthodoxy that attempts to steer clear of idolatry, ideology, and blasphemy. The problem with classical theology is that it cannot properly "problematize its core" (154), in the same way that reason never becomes a question for Hegel. Conversely, a theology of the trace is one that recognizes that theological discourse is always inadequate to what it names. On at least one crucial point, Adorno and Levinas turn out to be remarkably close to one another. Adorno claims that "taking literally what theology promises would be ... barbarian" (595), and Levinas maintains that language "about God rings false or becomes a myth, that is, can never be taken literally" (597).

But, if theological language can never be taken literally, then de Vries insists any "postmetaphysical metaphysics" or "posttheological theology" will need to mine such sources as negative and mystical theology. Like negative theology, the thought of both Adorno and Levinas is marked less by what it says than by what it leaves unsaid and denies. It is theology that is truly "transcendental," in the sense of finding no resting point or final word. As de Vries puts it, Adorno and Levinas give us an "infinitizing thought" (593), one in which there is no dialectical or phenomenological "end." More important, de Vries sees both as working beyond three problems in modern thought. First, even though they still remain trapped within a kind of subjectivity, they attempt to move beyond the autonomous subject. Second, instead of seeing morality as defined in principles or universals, they see it in terms of the singularity of persons and events. Third, they deeply recognize that all attempts by reason to think or speak of the divine are fundamentally problematic.

The question likely to arise at this point is what substance can be found in the minimal theologies of Adorno or Levinas. Of course, such a problem is hardly unique to them: it is a principal objection to negative theology of any sort. But, having waded through de Vries's massive text, the reader is certainly justified in asking what in the way of kataphasis is offered. Adorno provides very little of theological substance, which is hardly surprising. Although Levinas gives us considerably more, the question de Vries raises seems apropos: namely, does Levinas give us such a transcendent transcendence that we are left with "an unthinkable, unsayable, thoroughly emptied X?" (376). True, de Vries likewise points out that "Levinas repeatedly emphasizes that 'one must not be silent', that we 'are not before an ineffable mystery'" (494). Indeed. But one would be hard pressed to come up with anything like a robust theology from Levinas. In this respect, one wonders if Minimal Theologies is really the correct term for what either Adorno or Levinas are doing. As part of a propaedeutic to theology, both of them have much to teach us. Reading them can have the powerful effect of waking one from a theologically dogmatic slumber. Yet constructing even a minimal theology from them would seem to be a difficult project. If such is what de Vries hopes to accomplish, then one would have to rate him as relatively unsuccessful.

On the other hand, it strikes me that de Vries's project is more to show how one could construct a minimal theology that was truly transcendent. With that as a goal, De Vries's text is considerably more successful. However, even then, I can well imagine that readers with deep theological convictions (like myself) will wonder if enough is left with which to work. I also suspect that readers who make it through this 700-plus page book may be left wanting more. What exactly will a theology of radical dissymmetry and singularity look like? How does one write a theology of the trace? As true (and woefully needed) as the warnings of negative theology may be, at best they constitute only an inchoate theology. One may well agree with Adorno's dictum that "every true philosophy is 'essentially not expoundable'" and even be comfortable putting the term "theology" in place of philosophy. But can't one say something--and something substantial--about God? Another way of phrasing that question would be: just how minimal a theology do we really want? If we must work within the limits set by Adorno--and even Levinas--it would seem that theology must be rather minimal indeed. Alternatively, one can take seriously the problems of divine discourse as made clear by Adorno and Levinas--and still theologize. True, any theology written in their wake will be considerably more circumspect than classical theology has tended to be. But theology need not renounce all claims. Instead, such a theology will continually walk the delicate balance between avoiding speaking of God and speaking carelessly. Of course, that balance has always constituted the project of orthodox theology. In place of a "minimal" theology, then, one seeks one that says neither too little nor too much.

Bruce Ellis Benson

Wheaton College
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Author:Benson, Bruce Ellis
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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