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Heidegger, politics, phenomenology, religion

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Felix Ó Murchadha is a philosopher who never stops thinking about Heidegger and revolution, about Heidegger, time and Augustine, about the pointlessness of trying to immunize Heidegger’s philosophy from his politics, about the relationship of politics and philosophy, about the relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy, about Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion and Christianity, about Barth and Kierkegaard, about whether there can be a Christian philosophy, about phenomenology, about the theological turn in philosophy, about the debate between science and theology and about the role of philosophy. Read on….

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Felix Ó Murchadha: I grew up in a home with lots of books, but mostly works of history, music, philosophy and theology. My mother was a musician who had an interest in the philosophy of music, my father an accountant with an interest in theology! I was unusual in being raised in an atmosphere of intellectually engaged Irish Catholicism: Catholicism is many things in Ireland, but rarely a matter of intellectual engagement. But I grew up watching my father reading Karl Rahner and hearing him discuss seriously and with some conceptual sophistication the tenets of Roman Catholicism (he ended up during his retirement doing a BA and MA in theology). There was always, however, a limit to where such discussions could go, a more or less arbitrary limit, which of course only asks to be transcended. That freedom to think fundamentally, that is to attempt to think through and beyond all presuppositions, is what excited and continues to excite my aspiration to philosophy.

3:AM: Why do you say that revolution has important philosophical as well as political meaning for Heidegger and that it’s a key notion in all his philosophy?

FOM: I would put it the other way around, for Heidegger (to coin a phrase) the political is philosophical. The political crisis of the end of the Weimer republic was for Heidegger simply the symptom of a much deeper malaise which goes to the heart of European civilization, or rather what the German’s call the Land of Evening or indeed of the Setting Sun (Abendland). It is this which allows Heidegger in his recently published Black Notebooks, to say in a note dated 1934 that the transformation of being has been in preparation for 15 years, i.e. since the end of the First World War and the date of Spengler’s Decline of the West, which Heidegger read with students through the 1920s. Revolution for Heidegger is only secondarily political, it is first and foremost a transformation in being, which means a transformation of how entities appear to and for us. What is striking to me in this, is that for all Heidegger’s critique of modernity, he thinks in terms of that most modern of concepts: revolution (in the sense of the emergence of the radically new, not the return to an original state). Indeed, his thought becomes increasingly through the 1930s (and this is clear in particular in his Contributions to Philosophy) a propaedeutic to a new beginning, in other words, the preparation for a future revolution, one in which not simply one form of government replaces another, but rather the whole way of being in the world changes.

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3:AM: The opposition of two notions of time is important to understanding your approach to Heidegger isn’t it? You oppose the poietical with the practical experience of time don’t you? What’s the distinction about and how is Holderlin important in this?

FOM: Yes, as I read Being and Time, the ‘destructuring (Destruktion)’ of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics book 6 where he works through the different modes of intellectual virtue is crucial to Heidegger. It is important to read his magnum opus as at once a phenomenological work and as a working through of the history of philosophy. It is this which gives the work both its richness and its difficulty. So, for example, when Heidegger is talking about hammers, he is giving a phenomenological analysis, but he is also very clearly thinking through Aristotle’s account of poiesis (making) and in the process going to the core of Aristotelian thought – to the account of the four causes, which Aristotle constantly explains by reference to the craftsman. But then the problem is how to relate that account to the discussion of time in the second part of Being and Time. Some readers, most notably Hubert Dreyfus, give up at this point. But that is like departing a concert after the supporting act leaves the stage. The real meat of Being and Time is contained in the account of time. Once you see that the first part is structured according to a distinction of action (praxis) and making (poiesis), then you understand that the second part is grounding that distinction in modes of temporal experience and existence. The question of Being and Time then becomes the question of the modes of being of Dasein in its engagement with entities in the world through making and through action.

Hölderlin, of course, does not appear in Being and Time and poetry only comes up in a fleeting comment. Yet, when at the close of that work Heidegger begins speaking of the people (Volk), community, generation and such phenomena, the motives which led him to engage so profoundly with Hölderlin from the mid 1930s to the end of his life are already clear. The practical experience of time, the experience of time as much of the arising of things as of their decay and passing away, is for Heidegger an experience which involves not only a being-with other people, but a being-with which is historically contextualized. That context is as much a matter of the future as of the past, of what Heidegger terms the historical ‘mission’ of a people, as it is of traditions and past experiences out of which it arises. Hölderlin, whom Heidegger calls the most ‘futural’ of poets and thinkers, is for Heidegger the figure who more than any other points towards that future.

3:AM: You aren’t interested in just opposing praxis to poiesis however: you want to investigate the discontinuity involved in revolution, and this involves the notions of kairos and chronos. Can you say what you take Heidegger to be saying.

FOM: Once we read Being and Time as the articulation of the temporal structure of access to beings and we understand the fundamental modes of such access in terms of praxis and poiesis, then we need to ask how a difference in time can correspond to that difference of modes of practice. Poiesis is directed towards the past, while praxis is orientated towards the future. This does not mean that poiesis has no future and praxis no past, but rather that poiesis is directed towards that model which animates it, while praxis opens up a future which it cannot contain. What this implies further is that poiesis tends in temporal terms to be structured in terms of chronos, while praxis opens up the possibility of kairos. These two terms for time in Greek, chronos and kairos, refer to two distinct experiences of time: time as continuity, as handing down and producing (chronos) and time as discontinuous, initiatory and transforming (kairos).

The full philosophical sense of kairos is found in Christianity which understands an event in the world (the birth, death and resurrection of Jeusus of Nazareth) as a transformative moment. Heidegger in his account of originary and derivative time, in particular in the way in which he understands the moment of vision (Augenblick) in this context, draws implicitly on this distinction of chronos and kairos and in so doing brings together St. Paul, Augustine Luther and Kierkegaard, on the one hand, and Aristotle and Kant on the other. Already in Being and Time Heidegger is working out the philosophical basis for thinking revolution as the disruptive break in continuity which gives rise to a new chronology – a new narration of chronos – which stretches both backwards into the past and forwards into the promised future.

3:AM: How does Heidegger’s notion of time go beyond Augustine’s classical notion, and why is this significant especially when thinking about the relationship of time to historicity in ‘Being and Time’ that Heidegger hopes will get us to an understanding of authentic time?

FOM: Augustine is an important figure both historically in terms of the issues I am dealing with and more immediately a vital figure for Heidegger too, especially in his early work. Historically Augustine is crucial both because he understands time in terms of the lived experience of mortality and because he infuses the account of time with a Christian experience of the finitude of human history. The problem of time for Augustine is one of human existence in relation to the eternal, but an eternal which both disrupts that temporal experience with the promise of an other (celestial) time and yet distances infinitely the temporal from the eternal. The final reconciliation of the temporal and eternal, promised in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and in reflected form in his own conversion, is for Augustine the eschaton of history – not a telos, because it comes not immanently from history, but through that being who can unify the dispersed reality of human affairs, namely god.

Clearly Heidegger draws on Augustine in Being and Time (in particular with respect to care (Sorge) and falleness (Verfallen)), but he denies that fundamental relation of time to the eternal and to god. Heidegger’s attempt is to think time in its own terms (i.e., not in relation to the eternal) and to think it atheistically. Nor does he understand historicity in terms of an eschaton, but rather in relation to a crisis, the crisis of the present, the crisis of metaphysics, of technology, which he thinks points to the exhaustion of both Greek philosophy and Christian faith. Nevertheless, Augustine’s problematic of relating time and history, the moment of his own life (his conversion) to the historical moment of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth foreshadows Heidegger’s existential problematic of the relation of the temporality of Dasein as being toward death and the historical position of any such individual in the community and tradition to which he or she belongs.

3:AM: How does this notion of time relate to politics. You look at his Rectoral Address as a way of showing what role Heidegger thought philosophy had in a time of revolution, where you say he thought thinking was historical and historical action is always political?

FOM: The question of Heidegger’s politics has yet again come to the forefront of discussion following the recent publication of the Black Notebooks. It seems clear to me in the wake of that publication, that any attempt to immunize Heidegger’s thought from his politics has finally been shown to be pointless. I say this, not because of the anti-Semitic remarks which are sadly unsurprising, but have little or no bearing on his philosophy as far as I can see, but rather because of the definite manner in which he expresses the political meaning of his thought in these Notebooks from the 1930s. What seems clear here is that for Heidegger thinking is historical in the sense that it responds to the contingencies of the historical moment. In a sense one might see Heidegger as thinking through Hume’s critique of necessity to its logical conclusion: if we cannot think necessity philosophically and if truth therefore is not eternal, but is historically situated, then any attempt to think ahistorically is to flee from the existential condition of all thought. Heidegger is from beginning to end trying to think the conditions of thinking: he asks, what makes thinking possible, and fundamental to his response to this question is that thinking is made possible by that which gives rise to it, namely the ‘sending’, i.e. givenness, of being in a historical epoch.

There has been a tendency to read Heidegger’s philosophy politically, most notably in recent years by Emmanuel Faye, who has argued that Heidegger infected philosophy with Hitlerism and does not belong in the philosophical cannon. But this inverts the problem: Heidegger thought politics philosophically. In doing so he is not an aberration, indeed one of the strange tensions of this period – evident in the Rectoral Address – is the manner in which Heidegger employs a fundamentally Platonic understanding of philosophy’s relation to politics, while rejecting the Platonic understanding of the relation of time and eternity. Heidegger’s political engagement shows up in a radical form the danger of the relation of philosophy and politics. Crucial to understanding Heidegger’s political engagement is that we attempt to come to terms with the legacy of philosophy’s relation to politics. In this Hannah Arendt is a most acute reader of Heidegger, who is always in the background when she speaks of the philosophical hostility to politics and hence its attempt to replace the pluralism of political reality with a monological construction.

3:AM: How does this help us understand how Heidegger thinks about freedom and do you find limitations in his understanding that it pays us to address?

FOM: I would prefer to say that Heidegger’s understanding of freedom can help us understand his particular way of approaching politics philosophically. There are some issues of translation here. When I first went to Germany I was confused when asked to pay to get into a Freibad, literally a ‘free swimming pool’! The word ‘frei’ here means open, i.e., in open air as opposed to indoor. In English we use ‘free’ in this sense when we ask in whether a chair we wish to sit on is free – is it open for us. It is this sense of freedom which for Heidegger is fundamental, and it is in this sense that he can speak of the essence of truth as freedom or say that freedom possess the human being rather than the other way around. The key idea is that freedom is not a property of the individual human being but rather characterizes the relation to entities which is possible for us to the extent to which there is a free releasement (Freigabe) of entities. To understand freedom in this way and to further understand philosophy as politically engaged, can only lead, I think, to an outlook on politics which is at variance with the liberal democratic account. To think Heidegger productively today in a political context is neither to demonize him nor to make him somehow palatable to liberal democratic tastes. It is rather to allow his thought to challenge the account of negative freedom which lies at the core of our political debate and which is worryingly compatible with neo-liberal economic thinking. Definitely there are limitations to Heidegger’s account of freedom, but if we simply mark those limitations without allowing his account of challenge certain presuppositions, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice.

3:AM: In your last book you explore themes in Christianity that revolve around the figures of glory and night which you say ‘fundamentally disrupt Platonism and Greek philosophy from Plato to Heidegger.’ So what does change when we start ‘thinking after Greece’? And I thought there was a lot of Greek philosophy influencing the early Church Fathers – so is this approach historically justified?

FOM: To begin with the last point, the answer I think is yes and no. The enmeshing of Christianity with Greek philosophy is complex: not alone did Greek philosophy supply the vocabulary in which Christianity could be discussed within the educated milieu of the Roman Empire, but also it was imperative for early Christians in justifying the conversion of Gentiles to show the continuity of Christianity with that of Greek thought. Nevertheless, already in St. Paul we can see a radical critique of philosophy and at certain key points, in particular concerning the resurrection, it was recognized that Christianity transcended Greek thinking. Indeed, the very distinction between philosophy and theology is a Christian one, unknown to the Greeks.

My argument, however, is not a historical one. Rather, I want to claim that if we think certain Christian motifs such as glory and night, but also faith, sin, creation, incarnation, kairos, love as agape, what we find is that these explode the conceptuality of Greek thought – a conceptuality informing us to this day. Above all else what Christianity does is disrupt what I call a sacred logic in Greek thinking, particularly in Platonism but also in Aristotelianism and the Hellenic Schools. Basically what I mean by this is that Greek philosophy reflects the Olympian hierarchy of Greek religion: the dominance of sky over earth and the ascetic drive to purify the spiritual of the material. The Christian account of the incarnation where god becomes not simply human, but human in the sense of flesh and blood – a god who urinates and who suffers shameful and painful death – explodes this logic and allows us to think materiality for the first time as something more than a necessary evil. Of course, and I go into some detail in the book in discussing this, the ascetic and sacred practices of Greek philosophy are found in Christianity too and form a Gnostic strand which we can trace to the present day. But, thinking after Greece in this context is thinking Christianity free of Gnosticism.

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3:AM: So what do you mean by ‘glory’ and ‘night’ and how do they link with the idea of a phenomenology of Christian life?

FOM: The impetus for A Phenomenology of Christian Life came from the realization that the word ‘doxa’ was employed by the Septuagint translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to render the Hebrew ‘kabod’. Doxa in turn is translated into Latin as gloria – glory. Of course, for the philosophically educated ‘doxa’ means opinion, is the lower level of Plato’s divided line in opposition to episteme, knowledge. The common root is in the phrase dokei moi, which means ‘it appears so to me’ – doxa as opinion is the expression of how this appears to me as such and such; as glory, the mode of appearing is of that which the world cannot contain, appearing as hidden because of an excess which undermines the conditions of possibility of appearance of things (conditions of world and of self or subject). Such appearance breaks with the possibility of correspondence of object and subject, undermines the drive for mastery on the part of the knowing self, and calls for a particular type of response, namely praise (doxazo). Glory as an excess of appearance is blinding. It is blinding because it is a turning from the light of the world. While in worldly terms night is the lack of day, the lack of light, glory appeals to a sight which sees its object not in terms of the world, not that is as relative to a context from which it derives its meaning and sense, but rather sees the object in its singularity, indeed in its singular materiality. While philosophy in its Greek inheritance (in which we stand to this day) remains a discourse of light and as such one which remains on the surface of things, Christianity seeks the dark materiality of its object, because the Christian understands god as manifest in the ‘least of things’, things in their leastness (if you will excuse such a barbarous term), that is, as singular material revelations.
A phenomenology of Christian life then is one which attempts to be true to such phenomena or better such a being of phenomenon, phenomenon as in the world but not of the world.

3:AM: How does the work of Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion help establish this distinctive Christian philosophy?

FOM: Heidegger famously said of Christian philosophy that it was a ‘wooden iron’ and I am not sure that he is wrong in that. Ultimately, philosophy cannot be Christian, if by that is meant a philosophical defense of Christianity. Rather, the point is to think philosophically about Christianity, that is, about those phenomena and that phenomenality which is characteristic of Christian accounts without either granting those account authority or excluding them on principle.

Henry and Marion have understood the ‘end of metaphysics’ as in invitation to return to the non-metaphysical in Christianity. What Henry contributes to this is an emphasis on life. Specifically he shows how Christianity sees life as irreducible to worldliness because of the latter’s externality, its surface without depth. Similarly, Marion shows that Christianity thinks beyond being in thinking the givenness as gift. While they negotiate in different ways the difference between philosophy and theology, they both share the insight that Christian phenomena lose sense and intelligibility when understood in terms of the world. Unfortunately, both thinkers remain tied to the Gnosticism, I mentioned before. Henry is quite explicit about this, Marion less so. In both a certain polarity emerges between life (Henry) or givenness (Marion) and world, such that the directedness towards the phenomenon happens in response to a withdrawal from materiality of the object rather than a immersing in it. In this sense I think the later Merleau-Ponty offers a mode of thought which is more fruitful in articulating the paradoxical Christian account of materiality as that which is both appearing in the world and yet escapes the superficial – that is surface and light – logic of the world.

3:AM: You see Barth as helping bring Kierkegaard to the fore of theological discourse – and through figures like Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida and Marion Kierkegaard and phenomenology are developed as a Christian philosophy. Is that right? Can you say something about all this?

FOM: Again, I am cautious here about the term ‘Christian philosophy’. I do use it to describe the projects of Marion and Henry, but I think for them also the point is not to develop a specifically Christian philosophy, but rather to think through the challenge Christianity poses to philosophy. This is a general point: philosophy in my mind never comes to a mode of phenomenality (whether that of art or science or sport or religion) with a ready-made template. Rather, the point of philosophical enagement is to allow the particular mode of phenomenality to challenge the presuppositions of philosophy, that is, the philosophical presuppositions which are rooted in particular philosophical traditions in which each of us pursuing philosophy find ourselves. Christianity is particularly fruitful in this because of its long, complex and varied relation with the philosophical tradition. Part of this history is what I term a para-philosophical tradition which we can trace through Paul, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Pascal to Kierkegaard. Characteristic of this tradition is that these thinkers attempt to call philosophy to account on the basis of its conceptual exclusion of phenomena which for them are central to Christian faith. We can then trace a line, as you point out, from Barth’s ‘discovery’ of Kierkegaard through to Marion. Again I have issues with calling this a theological discourse, but we can perhaps return to that. The important point for me is the phenomenological one, which we might illustrate in relation to love. All the thinkers you mention have in different ways attempted to think the phenomenon of love by displacing the erotic through appeal to the agapeic. The agapeic idea of love as a giving without reciprocity is one which only makes sense, I think, if rooted in a ‘sight’ which sees in the world that which is irreducible to the reciprocal economies of the world.

3:AM: Is this phenomenology a way of being Lutheran via the methodological concept of Destruktion found in Heidegger?

FOM: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the goal is to release Christian phenomena from a Greek conceptuality foreign to it. But this leads Heidegger in Being and Time to a position of doing phenomenology in a ‘god-foresaken world’ something which is reflected, though with other influences to be sure, in Levinas’s atheism of the world in Totality and Infinity. But, after all, I am speaking of glory and this reflects the counterbalancing influence on my own work of the Swiss theologian Urs von Balthasar, who in his monumental work on glory, has attempted to return to an account of the beauty of creation based in part on a reworking of the Medieval notion of the transcendentals, specifically the transcendental of beauty.

Through his use Luther’s Destruktion Heidegger rethinks phenomenology as an existential analytic, but it is art, specifically the artwork which allows him to overcome the impasse hindering the completion of that project. My goal arising out of both these books, on Heidegger and on Christian life, is to do phenomenology beginning with a phenomenality characterized by kairos and glory, that is, by the transformative event through which that movement towards things whether seeking knowledge or pleasure or love makes sense. In other words, the phenomenology I am aiming for is one which begins not the despair and foresakeness (à la Luther), but in being overwhelmed by an excess out of which the self and the object of desire emerges. In such a view beauty is not simply an aesthetic category and is not the distracting, potentially tempting object to be treated with scorn or suspicion, but rather that out of which there is anything for us, i.e., for a being which is in the world, for whom as Heidegger says, its being is an issue.

3:AM: And why isn’t your philosophical interest really theological? The phrase ‘theological-turn’ has been used to describe this approach to phenomenology and surely it’s right that there’s nothing straightforwardly phenomenological in any of this is there? Isn’t this a fatal flaw to this approach to phenomenology qua phenomenology – that it requires a starting point in the faith before the intuitions such as ‘Christ is an event, the event which radiates in its own singularity, the singularity of a gift of love, which only love and faith can recognize’ can be taken up? If the idea is to put Christianity out of the reach of the critical philosophy tradition then doesn’t it stop being phenomenology?

FOM: I think ‘theological turn’ is an excellent polemical term, but is otherwise misleading. If anything, phenomenology since Levinas has encroached philosophically on territory which theologians consider their own. In one way or another this has been a tendency in philosophy (on the Continent at least) since Descartes’ “Letter to the Sorbonne” dedicating his Meditations. Besides which the disciplinary boundary between philosophy and theology is both a Christian construction and a fluid one.

But having said that, let me take up the sentence you have quoted. This sentence would not be philosophical, if it was meant as a proposition stating a fact about the world or making an existential claim. I make the point a number of times in A Phenomenology of Christian Life, that the book is to be understood as an experiment and phenomenologically as written under epoché. In that context an atheist, a Muslim or anyone else can say ‘Christ is an event …’, because the sentence makes no claim that there ever was such a person as ‘Christ’. Rather, the experiment begins with the premise that Christians, or Jews, or Hindus, or atheists, or agnostics, in their discourse speak of that which appears. They may not speak truly, even when they speak sincerely, of that which appears, but in the end their thoughts and words relate to phenomena.

It seems to me that the so-called theological turn has challenged us to look at religious – particularly Jewish and Christian – accounts of phenomena. The phenomenological task is to apply phenomenological rigor to examining these accounts, while pursuing them as far as they can lead us. The sentence you quote occurs in the context of a discussion of the Platonic metaphysics of light and the point which I am making is that the event of Christ – Christ understood as a kairological event – subverts the account of light we find in Plato’s allegories of the cave, the sun and the divided line. The phenomenological task then is to ask about the mode of appearance, the phenomenality, which is implicit in the Gospel accounts of Christ and those of the Epistles. In doing so what becomes clear is that this account of appearance is not neutral: constitutive of such phenomenality is a call to faith which appeals as love. Any account of appearance requires a mode of being in relation to that appearance and such modes are never simply neutral. The mode of appearance relates to the mode of being in the world, and what love and faith have in common is that they are modes of being open to a singular event. It is this event quality of Christ which finds no equivalent in Greek thought.

Implicit in the sentence you quote and in much of the book is the problem of grace. This is a topic on which I am working at the moment. But again, I think it is a mistake to think the problem of grace is simply a theological problem which we can avoid philosophically. Indeed, I think we can trace the problem as a philosophical problem through Descartes and Pascal to Hamann and Kant, and it hovers underneath the surface in the phenomenological account of giveness, as Marion above all has unearthed.

3:AM: Is a key to this the claim that as Karl Barth said, Christianity has no cosmology? This would make much of the contemporary debate between religion and science pointless wouldn’t it, but wouldn’t it weird out many Christians too? So what is faith and is there a God in this approach to Christianity? I guess I wonder whether anyone with this philosophy of Christianity could actually be a Christian?

FOM: The contemporary debate between religion and science is largely pointless, mind-numbingly so, I think. For one thing, it is mostly engaged in by those, on the one side, with little better than a caricatured view of religion and those, on the other side, who though speaking in favour of religion do so in a simplistic and indeed atavistic manner. Christianity has long since abandoned the claim that theology can govern science and it did so for reasons internal to Christianity itself as is evident in the voluntarist overturning of Thomism (led by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham). We are often blinded by the condemnation of Galileo such that we don’t see that the space for an non-theologically informed science was already there by the Fourteenth century. There is no turning back on that. Only at the cost of a bifurcated account of truth can we think that we can have both a Christian and a scientific logos for the cosmos. In this sense Christianity can have no cosmology.

But, what we see here is something which resembles the crisis of the European sciences which Husserl so eloquently described. The scientific account of the world is disconnected from the Christian sense of creation as the expression of divine love; nature, on the one hand, is without purpose, mechanical, formless and, on the other hand, informed by divine goodness, destined for salvation. The Christian sense of the logos is not the worldly, but rather that which in the world bears the trace of that which is not of the world. The potentially fruitful question concerns how to think these two accounts in harmony rather than in conflict. To think of them in conflict is philosophically naïve; it is in the end to fall prey to a rather simplistic realism. The question is that which already troubled Kant: how to live in a world which science explains and helps manipulate, but renders human sense of purpose meaningless. This question is, of course, not simply a question for religion, but it forms the context in which a fruitful relation of science and religion can be attempted.

Again, I would reject the implicit understanding of philosophy in your question, ‘whether anyone with this philosophy of Christianity could actually be a Christian’. What I think philosophy can offer is a reflection, which steps back from commitments and identities. This is the power of the phenomenological reduction. Some question its possibility, and I think Merleau-Ponty is right to say that the reduction can never be complete. But that does not mean it should not be attempted, but rather that the attempt is an ongoing one. Not that I think the reduction is neutral. A phenomenology of Christian life is a Christian phenomenology of life, but this is not to vouch for the veracity of Christianity but rather to imagine oneself in the world as the Christian sees it. In my view, the philosopher in thinking about Christian phenomenality reflects on the world as if it were as the Christian sees it. Everything hangs on this ‘as if’. Philosophically speaking it makes no difference if the tomb which Peter entered, according to the Gospel accounts, was empty or not, i.e., whether Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead or not. To think of Christianity under epoché in this sense, to reflect on it in the mode of ‘as if’, is something Christian cannot do – and even if the philosopher happens to belong to a Christian faith community, he is not being a Christian in so doing.

The question I am posing then is precisely a critical one, but critical in a more Kantian sense, namely what must the world be like, what must the human being be like and what must truth and goodness be like, to make sense of things as if Christianity were true. The further question, and one which I am pursuing in my current work, is what insights such reflections can bring to our philosophical questions more broadly conceived.

The rigour of philosophy is that it allows for no commitments except to itself. To return to the theme of freedom, it is this which allows the freedom to drink from the well of Christianity or Islam or Cezanne’s paintings or quantum physics without commitment to anything but the philosophical vocation of questioning. In pursuing such questioning nobody is a Christian or anything else, so nobody can be a Christian ‘with’ this philosophy. As philosophy it simply leaves Christians and everyone else to themselves. Paradoxically, I believe it is precisely in this indifference that philosophy can be most fruitful.

3:AM: And for the philosophically curious, are there five books you could recommend other than your own that would take us further into your philosophical world?

FOM: The book I return to again and again is Arendt’s The Human Condition. The book which changed my life was Heidegger’s Being and Time. The work which helped me most in understanding theology was von Balthasar’s Love Alone. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity is a constant revelation. Lastly, one of the first philosophy books I ever read was Descartes’s Meditations and it never ceases to surprise me.


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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 20th, 2015.