Yesterday I wrote a long post. The main goal of the post was to articulate a core aspect of the phenomenology of the sacred that I believe runs through the various epochs in the history of the West. The central feature of this phenomenology is that it involves a sense of gratitude for something felt to have authority outside oneself, something on the basis of which everything is felt to matter in whatever way it does. But this gratitude is essentially objectless. Indeed, I suggested, it is a metaphysical mistake to feel this gratitude to be directed toward an entity that grounds the way things matter – a mistake that leads (or anyhow has led) to our current nihilistic age. Fortunately, I said, echoing some aspect of what Heidegger sometimes says, our technological age has the chance at a new beginning. For the first time in the history of the West our gratitude – if we can recover it – will feel no temptation to direct itself toward an object. We can regain touch with a way things matter – indeed with many ways things matter – without setting up an imminent fall.
That was yesterday.
Today I’d like to say something else.
It’s not that I don’t really believe all those things about the gift without a giver. I do. And in some ways they are the first and most natural things I believe. As a matter of personal history, which may help to explain the issues, I can say that I come to this belief through my focus on Merleau-Ponty. When Merleau-Ponty talks about motor intentionality – about the way the world is given to me in my most absorbed kind of skillful activities – it is very important to his view (as I understand it) that the situation calls me directly to act without there being an object or entity that does the calling. The world, at this level, is a world of situational forces or powers and I am a direct openness to them. To turn the world into a world of objects, or to turn me into a subject directed towards them, is to cover up and eventually vitiate the structure of worldly calls and bodily opennesses. But since this is the most basic way in which things can matter, such a cover up leads to nihilism as well.
That said, I sometimes think exactly the opposite. That is to say, there is another tradition I am influenced by, and which I’m sure has something right, that emphasizes the importance of the bodily presence of an entity in establishing a mood by means of which the world can matter. As far as I can tell, this is not just a small lacuna in the position. It is a glaring contradiction. Maybe it is a useful contradiction. Maybe, as Melville says, the most important things are never complete or completable. But in any case there’s no use covering it up. For I’m quite sure this contradiction runs through the book as well.
Let us take the central case. A crucial fact of Christianity, and something that we argue renders it simply irreconcilable with any kind of Greek philosophy, is that Jesus was the incarnation of God. The bodily incarnation. And furthermore, Christianity claims, this incarnation is one of the central aspects of who God is. God is, and has to be, incarnated in the Christian tradition. Now, if there were no phenomenology behind this claim – that’s to say if it didn’t accurately reflect some aspect of the phenomena we can grab hold of by thinking about how cultures and our own individual histories work – then I wouldn’t take the claim so seriously. But one goal of the book is to ground this claim in the phenomena. In particular, we argue that the Christian idea of three persons in one God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the Christian case – is actually a reflection of the three aspects of a work of art that can ground the meanings of a culture. The work of art needs background practices already manifest in the culture (the Father), it needs a particular embodied presence to reorganize those practices (the Son), and it needs articulators to interpret and bring out the aspects of that reorganization (the Holy Spirit as it speaks through folks like Paul, John, and others). Heidegger works out (something like) this threefold structure in the case of the Greek temple, and Bert has explored it elsewhere in some of his other work. But the argument in the book is that the Christian tradition has the tripartite structure of the work of art built right into its conception of God. And that this is one of the ways in which it captures something that the Greek philosophical tradition couldn’t manage.
Now, this story that emphasizes the importance of an embodied presence seems to stand in direct conflict with the claim that the gratitude we are called to feel has, properly speaking, no object. There is a question, of course, what role the incarnation plays. But in the work of art story it is a pretty substantial one. Without Jesus as the bodily manifestation of the public mood of agape love, for example, there would be nobody from whom to catch the mood, and so Christianity couldn’t get a foothold in the lived world. One thing Christianity has right on this view, therefore, is that these kinds of public moods, which can really instantiate a way the world matters, have to be manifest in particular individuals. (Dostoevsky seems to get this in his de-mythologized version of apostolic succession in The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha’s bodily presence allows others – like Grushenka and the boys – to catch his mood.) But if the incarnation – the bodily presence – is so important to how the phenomena of mattering work, then how can we say that the gratitude we feel in the face of a world that matters is felt for a gift that comes without a giver? That is the central conflict in the position.
There is something to be said about how Jesus, or Alyosha, as the manifestation of a public mood that others can catch, is not properly thought of as an object or entity. So if one feels gratitude towards them, perhaps it is not gratitude towards them as a thing or entity. The same might be said for Heidegger’s Greek temple. Whatever the ontological status of these bodily incarnations, they are not properly assimilable to other kinds of things. But they are bodily incarnations nevertheless, and it seems to be crucial to the way they work that they be this way. Furthermore, this focus on the importance of the body traces back to Merleau-Ponty in an obvious way as well. So if the gratitude we properly feel is objectless, then what are we to make of the idea that the “source” (this must be the wrong word!) of the mattering is necessarily instantiated in the world?
That’s where I’ve gotten today.