The discussion of the phenomenology of religious feeling in the “DFW and All That” post took an interesting turn yesterday. Albert Borgmann’s work on the philosophy of technology is important for our book, and his account of focal practices especially has been influential for both me and Bert, so I’m enormously grateful for his contribution in the comments. He also expresses the hope that lots of people will read our book, which doubly endears him to me! But most importantly he brings up a topic that I’ve been interested in for a long time, so let me take this opportunity to explore it.
Albert endorses the account I give of the phenomenology of religious feeling as it is found in Homer, but as a Christian he wants to give it a different name. Instead of experiencing the presence of a god, Albert says, the Christian should describe it as the presence of grace. I suspect there is a genuine phenomenology to this distinction – that it is not a distinction in name only – but I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. Let me give it a shot.
I’m tempted to say that the phenomenological difference, if there is one, is that the feeling of grace has a certain kind of unity to it, whereas Homer’s Greeks experienced a plurality of distinct kinds of wonder and the gratitude that goes along with them. This would certainly account for the distinction between Greek polytheism and Catholic monotheism. But every time I try to imagine what this distinction is like at the level of phenomenology I lose track a little bit. I guess you’d have to say that the Greeks really could feel a wonder that indicates the presence of Athena as opposed to one that indicates the presence of Ares or Poseidon. You would have to say that these felt like wonders that share a family resemblance with one another, but that are recognizably distinct nevertheless. By contrast, the presence of the grace of God would have to feel unified, as if all that is wonderful stems from a single source. But surely there is a panoply of different kinds of wonder. The wonder one feels in the presence of the pounding sea or the threatening storm clouds is just different from the wonder one feels at the moment one knows for sure how to go on in a tricky social situation, or the wonder one feels in the presence of heroic activity. So the Catholic unity to all these must be somehow on top of their multiplicity, or riding behind it, or holding them all together. That’s quite a subtle phenomenon. Moreover, this would have to be felt as a unity of source rather than a unity of resemblance. The Greeks, after all, had Zeus at the head of their pantheon of gods, holding them together as a family (more or less). But somehow their being was distinct from his, in a way not allowed by Christian monotheism. A subtle distinction indeed.
It gets even more complicated in the Catholic tradition when you add the possibility of Saints to whom one can pray. Presumably the Saints are not unified – each has his or her special domain. So then there is the question of the relation between the kind of plural wonder one finds in this aspect of Catholicism and the kind one finds in its Homeric counterpart. Suppose someone prays to Saint Anthony for the recovery of a lost thing, and then it shows up. Does the feeling of astonishment and wonder in the presence of the found thing evoke gratitude both to Saint Anthony and also to the God in whom he shares? Is this latter clause the difference between Catholic gratitude and Homeric? Between the presence of grace and the presence of a god?
The book is predicated in part on the idea that the death of God is the death of this sense of the unity of all wonders. Not that certain individuals can’t feel it, but that it is no longer a background assumption of the culture. As Heidegger says in “The Question Concerning Technology,” this is the most extreme danger. For it initiates the possibility that we will no longer experience ourselves as receptive beings at all. (Long story about why.) But if we get in the right relation to this danger, experience it as a danger, then it becomes a saving possibility as well. For it reveals a genuine plurality of wonders that is even better than the plurality Homer’s Greeks experienced; a “new beginning” that is not the same as their “first beginning”. For the Greeks the plurality of wonders came with a felt temptation to unity, a temptation they were eventually unable to resist. But that temptation is now closed off with the death of God, so our saving possibility, if we take it up, will put us in a genuinely different place than the Greeks. Anyhow, that’s the idea. But the worry is that it’s based on a distinction that is too clever by half. That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far…