Hobbits as Heroes

Clark Elliston on Christina Gschwandtner’s Postmodern Apologetics?

Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy, Fordham University Press, 2013, 352 pp., $90
Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy, Fordham University Press, 2013, 352 pp., $90

The popularity of the fantasy genre, perhaps more than any other medium, illustrates the human desire for transcendence. Whether characters possess mythical objects (Thor), money (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), or sheer innate power (Man of Steel, Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones), the desire to move beyond one’s circumstances remains a driving narrative in American culture. Fantasy films and television are aspirational insofar as they present viewers with images of unrealized possibilities.

But no one goes to the movies to watch flawless gods rule. It is the characters’ weaknesses that vitally connect them with their audience. Thor and Tony Stark are models of arrogance, while Bruce Wayne and Aragorn stumble over their doubt. These flaws close the gap between the symbolic world of the ordinary viewer and the world of the hero. The Lord of the Rings, for example, offers a narrative of salvation through ordinary hobbits rather that deified heroes. Tolkien repeatedly promotes a form of heroism characterized by simple responsibility rather than magnificent transformation or tragic greatness. Boromir’s acknowledged strength, while well-intended, cannot endure the task given to him. Although dominant narratives glorify the attempt both to control and transcend one’s context, a significant vein of continental philosophical reflection focuses on those mundane experiences of limit and obligation that make us human — or hobbit-like.

Christina Gschwandtner’s Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy explores this Western philosophical concern for both transcendence and finitude. For most of the philosophers represented in Gschwandtner’s book, hobbits are humankind’s heroes. Their significance (even transcendence) emerges through their simplicity and ordinariness. In contrast to a philosophical tradition which has itself at times lionized humankind’s self-transcending potential, the authors portrayed here embrace a distinctively Christian account of finitude. Focused on the French phenomenological tradition (drawing on Martin Heidegger), Gschwandtner argues that a distinctive strain of phenomenology offers a reconsidered version of apologetic on behalf of the Christian faith. This philosophical tradition rejects aggressive, rational claims to universal or total truth and instead emphasizes universal human experiences of suffering, fleshly embodiment, and gift exchange. Gschwandtner’s interlocutors are apologetic to the extent that they narrate a persuasive (and in many cases Christian) account of being in the world. Embracing one’s corporeality, rather than escaping or transcending it, remains central to this articulation of human existence. Over against attempts to understand humans as masters or gods (or potential superheroes), the figures in the text celebrate the spectacular ordinariness of mundane human life. Transcendence represents the practice of being human rather than overcoming humanity or being more than a finite human being.

The first three chapters provide a primer for considering the larger phenomenological landscape. Although Gschwandtner argues in favor of a particularly religious strain of contemporary phenomenological reflection, the progenitors of the tradition themselves reject explicitly religious attempts at phenomenology. Nevertheless, Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida demand treatment due to their considerable imprint on the tradition. Whether explicitly or implicitly, every other philosopher Gschwandtner references responds to these three. Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein as being-towards-death inspires particular vitriol from those figures concerned for an alternative that resonates with Christian proclamation. Levinas’s radical emphasis on otherness grounds several subsequent reflections on the relational and ethical character of everyday human existence. Derrida’s deferred and deconstructive hope offers a fecund conceptual starting point for others to narrate a Christian eschatology that looks for transformation while remaining squarely in the world. If we look for an ultimate future outside the concrete world in which we live, we miss the very importance of that world.

Gschwandtner then offers brief outlines of central themes and texts from a variety of voices who appropriate phenomenological methods to articulate a Christian way of being in the world. Though they comment on various aspects of religious life in the world, they share a fundamental commitment to speak of the world in religious terms. The point is not that the world must be understood religiously but that the world is saturated with religious meaning for those inclined to notice it. More pointedly, those who seek to escape or to transcend the world will miss the religious possibility inherent within it. Paul Ricoeur, for example, understands the biblical text as a limit to the human being; it perpetually challenges the reader and provides points of friction between the reader’s own world and the radically different world of the text. This friction provides a continually evolving source of meaning. Although Ricoeur and Jean-Luc Marion are well-known to an American audience through their involvement with the University of Chicago, Gschwandtner gives equal time to the work of Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chretien, Jean-Yves Lacoste and Emmanuel Falque. Henry stresses the importance of Life, which he characterizes as facilitating the experience of being affected or touched. Jesus Christ, for Henry, both manifests this Life and mediates it for other beings. Chretien also emphasizes the role of the flesh in human life, but it is the voice (or lack thereof) that possesses phenomenological significance. We need each other in both speaking and silence. To be enfleshed means to be in ethical relationship. Human beings are called to and call upon others. This ethical component of human being, drawn in part from Levinas, forms the basis from which to consider themes such as memory and promise. Falque develops these themes in terms of suffering: “Meaning can only become possible when it is first suspended in silence, vanity, and anxiety.” Christ’s resurrection offers a partial way to reconsider suffering. While the resurrection does not undo or reduce the absurdity of suffering, it does offer a counter-balance to suffering. Human beings suffer and, through resurrection, are reborn. Contrary to a superhero narrative, rebirth and resurrection in this account lead to excess humility rather than excess power. This humility does not isolate but leads to genuine community with others.

Gschwandtner concludes by presenting three contemporary American appropriations of this religious turn in French phenomenology. Students of continental philosophy of religion will be familiar with Merold Westphal, John Caputo, and Richard Kearney. Gschwandtner cites them as being vaguely concerned with faith, hope, and love, respectively. Westphal, interested in both textual hermeneutics and Søren Kierkegaard, focuses on faith as the performance of justice and compassion. Human beings, as finite creatures, must rely on faith. However, faith alleged but not practiced leads to justifications of violence and domination, an insight gleaned from Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. Postmodern faith then, indicates a willingness to be exposed to God and to others in humility and justice. Caputo, on the other hand, focuses on an account of hope drawn from Derrida. Caputo resists Heidegger’s locating of Being particularly in both Greek and German historical existence. Alongside this reticence to locate Being historically, Caputo embraces Derrida’s openness to a future which never arrives. Such a future engenders perpetual messianic hope. Gschwandtner writes, “The coming of a Messiah haunts deconstruction, although this coming is always infinitely deferred.” Kearney represents for Gschwandtner a form of postmodern love or charity. Also drawing on themes of promise and justice, Kearney speaks of a kingdom given to the little people, or a kingdom of compassion and of mercy. Consonant with this vision of the kingdom is a concern for transcendence in everyday life. If God’s kingdom is in any sense “not yet,” it is here for Kearney in the smallest acts of generosity. Drawing again on Levinas, Kearney understands hospitality or openness to the stranger as more important than dogmatic assertions of God’s existence.

Postmodern Apologetics is a significant contribution to a burgeoning field of philosophical inquiry. There are few texts within the heavily-contested field of postmodern philosophy that cover such ground. Although one can find mountains of secondary literature on Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida, the pickings are considerably slimmer (at least in English) when it comes to their philosophical descendants. While specialists on any particular figure covered in the book will likely find Gschwandtner’s treatment incomplete, her book is a success on two fronts. She illustrates a persistent theme of apologetic intent among her selected interlocutors. Although they vary in their descriptions of their projects, they share threads of continuity. Generally these continuities appear in themes of hospitality, embodiment, finitude, and hope. And she fills a critical gap by providing a primer in the French phenomenological tradition. If too general for specialists, her book is perfect for the philosophically-inclined lay reader and for the one interested in philosophical theology in the continental tradition. She covers immense swathes of ground, invigorating the reader to pursue particular paths in greater detail.

The impulse to transcend oneself may be very human. But for those engaged in this religious incarnation of postmodern philosophy, the hope lies beyond oneself in “the God who may be.” Such finitude calls for openness to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Human beings are resurrected by the mundane in life: a cup of water offered by a compassionate hand. Only by trading in our pretensions of becoming like a god can we become authentically human. Our inner Iron Man must give way to our inner hobbit.