Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection
By Louis Dupré.
Eerdmans. 147 pages, $20
The nine essays that constitute this volume are all concerned, in some fashion or another, with questions of religious experience: its form, its nature, its susceptibility (or resistance) to philosophical scrutiny, its very possibility in cultures that have (for the most part) taken leave of all their gods. The collection as a whole, however, derives its unity (not to mention a kind of haunting urgency) from its pervasive concern with one question in particular: how does one describe the subjective and objective elements of religious experience without reducing one to the other, or reducing religious experience in general to some merely anthropological constant, devoid of any transcendent dimension?
The richest and most suggestive piece in the collection is perhaps the first (“Phenomenology of Religion: Limits and Possibilities”). Could there be a phenomenology of religious experience (or, as Dupré prefers to say, of the “religious act”) that would take equal and unprejudiced account both of the objective symbolism in which every properly religious phenomenon is made available to consciousness and of the subjective experience by which the believer receives and (in phenomenological parlance) intends the object of faith? The Romantics tended to dissolve all religion into an expressive subjectivity, while the “scientific” study of religions tends to treat religious symbols simply as functions of the “human” or the “social.” Dupré argues, on the other hand, that only if the two moments are taken together in their integral dependence on one another does it become possible to describe the peculiar kind of intentionality that informs the religious act. Religious acts (as opposed to other “symbolic” intentions) present a unique problem, though, because while the experience is inescapably immanent, it comprehends a transcendent object. And so the question must be raised: can there really be a phenomenology of religion, in the end, that accomplishes more than a sort of clinical examination of the various extrinsic forms of religious expression?
Dupré’s answer is that there can and must be, because the transcendence of the object of religious intention appears within the religious experience itself, in its very constitution, and so no responsible or meaningful phenomenology dare ignore the degree to which, within the religious act, human symbolic creativity is provoked and saturated by an object that transcends it—or to be more precise, by an object that is intended as transcendent. No phenomenology that ignores the fundamental passivity at the heart of the religious act, the element of irreducible givenness that is experienced in the object (and so experienced as exceeding the symbolic forms that embody the subjective intention), can really be said to have disclosed the distinctively religious within the field of its investigations. The argument at this point is delightfully lucid, and only mildly subversive: within the expansive “science” of philosophical phenomenology, which means to limit reflection to objects that appear within immanent cognition as representation or as value, the contours of an experience of transcendence as such can be glimpsed. Since the religious activity of symbolic religious representation invokes and expresses in stable and analogous forms that which exceeds all representation, phenomenology cannot deny that a radical receptivity invests our active projections of symbolic meaning with more significance than they can—as objects of immanent reflection—contain. The symbols do not exhaust or even capture their transcendent object. But, then, what is the relation of this transcendence to these symbolic forms? Is the transcendent merely a noumenal absence from representation, a silence that our symbols indicate but cannot reflect? Is religious meaning, in short, a message or merely a construction?
For Dupré, of course, the answer is the former. The great promise he finds in phenomenology in its developments after Edmund Husserl (1859”1938) is the possibility it opens up of supplanting a sterile correspondence model of truth with the more ancient model of truth as disclosure, as the radiance by which the object of reflection really shows itself”gives itself”to the subjective intention. Such a model of truth makes room for the notion of revelation, for the idea of a transcendence that declares itself, that is Word and light and meaning, appearing gratuitously, even if it does so necessarily under the forms provided by a human creativity. Even if every religious truth comes to consciousness as a construction, a mythic, symbolic, and ritual invention, it also comes as a gift that”appearing within the elaborate architecture of the religious act”still surpasses intention, and overflows the understanding of the one who receives it.
Of course, this all perhaps begs a certain question. Dupré’s concern about the reductive nature of “scientific” discussions of the religious act is well taken, but this does not yet clarify the degree to which the concrete symbols of religious faith adequately reflect the truth they indicate. To what degree are the particular contents of a given religious tradition ultimately indifferent? If all religious experience as such refers to an object irreducibly transcendent of the intentionality that seeks it, however that object may give itself to experience, do religious symbols actually express the “Absolute” or merely constitute an occasion for indicating its otherness? Does Dupré’s argument really show how the objective and subjective elements of faith shed light upon one another, or does it merely call attention to a universal religious intuition that embodies itself in a variety of shifting shapes, at different times and in different places, now Christian, now Islamic, now Hindu? If truth discloses itself, if it bears witness to itself, does it ever do so in such a way as to necessitate a particular dogmatic content? Can so general a phenomenology ever make room for theology as a discourse of truth?
But perhaps the question is misguided. The play between the objective matter of faith (say the event of Jesus of Nazareth in history) and the subjective act of interpretation (the meaning-intention that informs faith) can never be exhaustively determinative of the symbols that express it, but this does not render those symbols arbitrary. Dupré takes quite seriously the ancient (Platonic and Christian) idea of illumination: the light of truth can be received only under the forms of a creative and poetic capacity in consciousness, perhaps, but that very capacity also already participates in Being’s light, and receives it from without. Consciousness, thus conceived, is not a transcendental faculty (the Kantian or Husserlian ego) that comprises within itself concepts that to a greater or lesser degree correspond to, or reflexively constitute objects of cognition simply exterior to itself; it is instead an openness to the radiance of things.
Being is an analogical and expressive medium, whose structures of meaning coincide in the ever more eminent, always openly manifest, and necessarily interdependent transcendentals of beauty, goodness, truth, and unity. In “Truth in Religion and Truth of Religion,” Dupré depicts religious truth as a kind of deepening of vision, a constant conversion towards Being’s transcendent depth of truth and goodness. One is “in the truth” before one can simply “know” the truth; it is a way of being rather than simply a way of conceiving.
In “Experience and Interpretation: A Philosophical Reflection on Schillebeeckx’s Theology,” Dupré considers the question of how revelation can unfold within history, within the horizons provided by the varying cultural conditions of different ages, without thereby losing its historical particularity or its objectivity; experience and interpretation are inseparable from one another, he argues, and both continuously develop over time. And in “Religious Symbolism and Aesthetic Form,” a brief and elegant essay on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, he considers the expressive power of beautiful form, the power of creation to manifest the depth of Being’s mystery, and the way in which the Christian appropriation of beauty as a transcendental is altered by the crucified radiance of Christ. And in every case, Dupré’s theme is light; his is a classic phenomenological concern for illumination and concealment, splendor and obscurity, the visible and the invisible, and the mystery of vision.
This is also to say, incidentally, that Dupré’s theme is darkness: the darkness of evil and suffering, the darkness of the via negativa , the dazzling darkness of mystical union, and the dark night of modern humanity’s interior retreat from faith. Of the mystery of evil no “explanation” is offered, of course, no theodicy, but Dupré takes the problem as the occasion for one of the few concretely dogmatic proposals to be found in this book: he insists upon the futility, in the face of cosmic suffering, of theories of atonement whose grammar is one of mere ransom and satisfaction, and upon the necessity therefore of seeing in the Incarnation the revelation of a God who suffers with and in the suffering of his creatures, and whose power and perfection are not threatened—but demonstrated—by this very capacity to enter into the conditions of creaturely estrangement from him. And in a move of great subtlety (and charity), Dupré suggests that in the ever more fragmentary and private realms of symbolic imagination that are so characteristic of modern humanity’s experience of truth, within the desert of the isolated ego, and even in the realm of our pandemic atheist disenchantment, there is an analogy of and (perhaps) invitation to the apophatic language of the mystics, who knew how the privation of names for God can also be a preparation to bear the presence of a mystery that always surpasses each of the symbols in which it variously arrays itself, a presence known most fully as the wound of an unutterable and transcendent love.
One could continue reciting the virtues of this volume at far greater length. At the last, however, it need only be said that, for so slender a volume, and one written with such lucidity and such restraint, Dupré’s book has a remarkably suggestive force; it carries about it a kind of mysterious surfeit of meaning. Each essay implies many more questions that need to be asked, and opens up numerous and unexpected perspectives upon those it directly engages. And it is worth noting (though anyone familiar with Dupré’s work in the past will expect nothing else) that each essay is characterized at once by the rigor of its thought and the limpid prose of its exposition. Not to wax too fulsome, but it is a beautiful book and one that merits far more than one reading. Issues of such magnitude and difficulty are rarely presented in so obliging a form.
David B. Hart is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?