This post is a translation of my article for “Reformatorisch Dagblad,” a conservative Dutch newspaper, on the way in which contemporary phenomenology provides a new apologetic argument of sorts for the truth of Christianity. This English translation is provided in response to a request. While this article engages the recently published Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy it is not intended as a book review. Rather this article attempts to introduce to a non-academic, conservative but interested audience, in a non-technical way, the value of continental philosophy.
In my previous contribution for Weerwoord [a series on apologetics in Reformatorisch Dagblad] I promised to inquire deeper into the possibility of a postmodern apologetics. What that might look like, or better, what it is in fact starting to look like. There is little need for fantasy. It is here. But as you might expect in the postmodern era, it looks different from traditional apologetics in every possible way. Many Christians will probably be disenchanted with it. Is that supposed to be apologetics? The answer, quite confusingly, is: no, actually it isn’t ’supposed to be’ that, but now that it is here, it turns out to possess an apologetic value all on its own.
Don’t be mistaken! We are talking here about some of the most important philosophers of the past century. The interested lay person who wants to enjoy an accessible book on arguments for God, should not even consider to start reading the works that these thinkers have produced. Allow me, therefore, by way of introduction—and with gratitude toward Christina Geschwandtner’s book Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in contemporary philosophy—to tell you the story of this movement that is no movement, this non-apologetics that in spite of everything is yet apologetic in character. The reader may form her own opinion.
The history of this new, strange apologetics begins with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl who, at the beginning of the 20th century, develops a new kind of philosophy: phenomenology. Husserls is concerned about the tendency of the modern human being to master the entire world by the power of human thought alone. This self-confidence is not justified. It leads to an obsession with the question concerning the possibility of knowledge. Husserl brackets this question because it cannot be answered and instead decides to allow things to be what they are. He wants to be receptive for things as they represent themselves to the observer. Husserl is followed by Martin Heidegger who emphasizes human existence instead of human knowing. Objective knowledge does not exist, says Heidegger, because human existence is always embedded in a context and a history. It always already has a certain perspective and always already begins with a certain pre-knowledge of its existence. There is no existence apart from knowing, or knowing apart from existence. Epistemology (the theory of knowledge) can therefore not have the priority.
The attention for the thing itself, the phenomenon, (hence phenomenology) encourages later phenomenologists to be more open for religious experience. Isn’t revelation a phenomenon too. Aren’t religious rituals and spiritual communities phenomena in their own right? Because the phenomenologist is no longer bound by the exaggerated urge for knowledge as was the case during the Enlightenment, but really can allow herself to be open for what appears in her environment, matters related to the spiritual or religious are not rejected from the outset.
French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, for instance, in developing his ethical philosophy of the other, refers back to his Judaistic roots. Instead of the human being trying to dominate the world and the other through comprehensive knowledge, it is his ethical task to do justice to the otherness of the neighbor. As such the other calls him to account. In this infinite otherness of the other we notice the invisible trace of God. Lévinas often refers to the God of Abraham to concretely indicate that trace. Lévinas’ philosophy is indebted to the God of Israel.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Marion, thinks Husserl and Heidegger are not going far enough. To go beyond the Enlightenment quest for knowledge and emphasizing the centrality of human existence is not sufficient. The essence of our interaction with the things around us is that, as phenomena, they ‘give’ themselves to us. We have no absolute access to the things or even our knowledge of these things, but their ‘givenness’ is something we may receive. The givenness of the phenomenon can at times be so overwhelming that the receiver is not able to get a grip on the phenomenon. She is unable to grasp it. One of the examples that Marion uses to illustrate this is divine revelation. The self-revelation of God is so blinding, he maintains, that the receiving human being may be under the impression that she grasps it, while in reality she doesn’t know what to do with it.
There is not enough space to talk about other representatives of the new phenomenology, like Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chrétien, John Caputo, or Richard Kearney. They all do something similar, however. They show that religious experience—and by extension the reality of God—are meaningful concepts in philosophical discourse.
Characteristic of this form of apologetics is that none of its proponents attempt to offer any kind of apology for God. Their work is devoid of apologetic argumentation. That is not entirely strange. Faithful readers of this series have been able to repeatedly hear me say that arguments for God’s existence are problematic in our age to say the least. Who thinks to be able to prove God still dwells in Enlightenment epistemology. Rather these thinkers use theological explorations as case studies for their more philosophically inclined discourse. But if musings concerning God are helpful in philosophy, what does that say about Godself? Therefore we see an indirect apologetic argument: reality makes sense in light of the idea of God’s existence. That the new phenomenologists are thus interpreted can be seen from the fact that some philosophers are not at all happy with the developments taking place in phenomenology. Philosopher Janicaud even wrote a book about this ‘theological turn’ in philosophy. As far as he is concerned philosophers should return to doing ‘proper’ philosophy.
While these thinkers should not be measured by conservative standards, it is remarkable that in an age that has little patience for doctrinal correctness, from different perspectives God is once again presented as a genuine option. That is more authentic and credible than that one particular movement or denomination claims truth for itself. This is not apologetics the way we are used to, but if it is true that apologetics is no longer able to continue in the old way and that the so-called proofs no longer have any content, then it is not strange that apologetics in the postmodern age no longer pretends to prove or provide a concrete apologetic. If the postmodern age is indeed all about praxis and embodied action, these thinkers show the way: they practice philosophy and in doing so they ‘embody’ the reality of God in their thought.
Although I do not expect that many readers of this article will immediately get excited about the new phenomenology, many will be surprised to hear that God has once again been firmly placed on the agenda of Western philosophy. Let us welcome this even when the confessional viewpoints of these thinkers may not directly be our own.