Dec 012015

Christina M. Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics?: Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013; 378 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8232-4275-7.

Christina M. Gschwandtner, Degrees of Givenness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014; 297 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-01419-1.

Reviewed by Eric D. Meyer, Independent Scholar

What happens to the Christian God in the Western world after “the death of God”? Christina M. Gschwandtner’s Postmodern Apologetics?: Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy (hereafter PA) not only raises this difficult and troubling question, but also promises to provide a satisfactory answer to it. Superficially, Gschwandtner’s Postmodern Apologetics? presents itself as simply a wide-ranging survey of the enormous field of contemporary Continental philosophy of religion, with specific reference to the 21st-century French postmodern theologians who have contributed most to what Dominique Janicaud calls “the theological turn” in French phenomenology: Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Jean-Yves Lacoste, and Emmanuel Falque. But in her “Introduction: The Death of God and the Demise of Natural Theology,” Gschwandtner raises precisely those questions that present the greatest stumbling-blocks to Christian belief in the contemporary world. (PA, 9–10) These questions include: Where is the Christian God in the Western world “after Auschwitz”? If the Nazi Holocaust or Jewish Shoah was a revelation of the existence of “radical evil” in world history, what does the existence of that radical evil say about the existence of the Christian God? And if God, in fact, died at Auschwitz: who (or what) comes after the Christian God?

Following up on these difficult questions, Gschwandtner observes that “in the light of the Shoah, theodicy has become impossible. Any ‘justification’ of the divine in the face of evil is no longer credible. The powerful name of ‘God’ has died at Auschwitz and Dachau.” (PA, 282) The impossibility of theodicy in the Western world after Auschwitz then leaves contemporary humanity cast adrift in a post-theological cosmos, in which the Christian God appears to be simply absent, if not actually non-existent. But in Postmodern Apologetics?, Gschwandtner, like the French postmodern theologians whose texts she explicates, does not finally succeed in actually answering the difficult question of the death of God in Western culture, but largely confines herself to questions concerning the phenomenology of religious experience: “What does it mean to have an experience of the divine?….What language is used to speak of such an experience?….What effect does religious experience have on the human subject?” and so on—questions that presuppose the existence of the Christian God which it might be the burden of a “postmodern apologetics” to prove. (PA, 16) As Gschwandtner observes of Marion’s phenomenology, in these French postmodern theologies, the “‘theological’ phenomena” upon which the Christian faith is based are also “not proven philosophically, but taken for granted,” and “any concerns about their existence in ‘real life’ or ‘actuality’ are set aside” or bracketed. (PA, 120–121) Instead, it might be said that, for these French postmodern theologians, reports of the death of God have been greatly exaggerated, and their descriptions of the phenomenology of religious experience are taken as sufficient evidence to prove that the Christian God is still alive and well in the contemporary world after the death of God.

But what of the testimony of those Auschwitz survivors, such as Elie Wiesel, for whom the experience of the Nazi death camps was sufficient to refute any apologetics for the existence of the Jewish or Christian God? Can this testimony be simply ignored by a postmodern apologetics? Or refuted by appeal to the phenomenology of religious experience? To raise these difficult questions is not, of course, to dispute Gschwandtner’s impressive achievement in Postmodern Apologetics?, which does, in fact, succeed in surveying an enormous body of texts—many still unavailable in translation—in German, French, and English, and making the gist of their arguments accessible to a contemporary readership. After a brief discussion of the three Continental philosophers who have exerted the greatest influence on contemporary debates—namely Heidegger (PA, 27–30), Levinas (PA, 50–56), and Derrida (PA, 74–81)—Gschwandtner devotes a chapter each to Ricoeur, Marion, Henry, Chrétien, Lacoste, and Falque, before considering the reception of this Continental philosophy of religion by the three Anglo-American philosophers—Merold Westphal, John D. Caputo, and Richard Kearney—who have played the most important role in conveying this French postmodern theology to an Anglo-American audience. And it is in the chapters on these Anglo-American theologians, for whom the Nazi Holocaust or Jewish Shoah is not an existential factum of their collective experience, as it is for Continental philosophers, that the subject of the death of God receives its most direct treatment.

But Westphal, Caputo, and Kearney, too, Gschwandtner suggests, write their own versions of a postmodern apologetics for “God after the death of God” (Kearney), and the critical reader can perhaps be forgiven for being slightly disappointed that, after an introduction invoking the difficult questions of the death of God and of the catastrophic effect of the Holocaust or Shoah on postmodern theology, these critical issues receive only cursory mention in the body of Gschwandtner’s text, and no mention at all in the “Conclusion,” which is instead concerned with the language of excess in French postmodern theology generally, and in Marion’s concept of “the saturated phenomenon” specifically. (PA, 287–293) But as Jeffrey W. Robbins observes in the “Introduction” to After the Death of God (2007, 1–3), what is called “post-secular” theology exists in the wake of “The Death of God Movement” of the 1960s, and in the shadow cast over the face of God by the catastrophes of the 20th century: the First and Second World Wars, the Holocaust, the Stalinist Terror, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam and Cambodia, and so on. The French postmodern theologians reviewed by Gschwandtner, however, appear to suffer from a certain world-historical amnesia regarding these shocking events, and instead appear to believe that a simple return to the blissful orthodoxies of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and Western Christendom in the High Middle Ages, circa the 13th century, can still satisfy the skeptical reader in the 21st-century world.

Keeping this theological background in mind, it would then be possible to read Gschwandtner’s recent book, Degrees of Givenness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion (hereafter DG), as a case in point. There she attempts a critical reading of Marion’s description of “the saturated phenomenon,” which extreme phenomena include not only mystical experiences and world-historical events, but also the peak experiences of artistic works, erotic love, sacrifices and gifts, prayer and sainthood, and the Christian sacraments. Gschwandtner argues that Marion’s concept of “the saturated phenomenon” does not admit of “degrees of givenness” between the extremes of those excessive phenomena which are saturated with “the intuition of givenness,” like mystical experiences, and phenomena that are “poor in intuition,” like everyday worldly (“banal”) experiences. Instead, Gschwandtner “contend[s] that even saturated phenomena require [a discrimination of] degrees of givenness … and that this requires a fuller account of what might constitute less saturated phenomena” (DG, xi); and, further, that discrimination of “degrees of givenness” might also admit description of the whole spectrum of phenomenological experience, including those natural experiences which are the basis of ecological consciousness (DG, 78–99), but which are neglected in Marion’s phenomenology.

More importantly, it might also be observed that Marion’s description of “the saturated phenomenon” does not admit of ethical or moral distinctions between different types of extreme experience, so that, for example, the ecstatic mystical experience of St. Theresa of Avila, as portrayed in Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,” and the horrifically painful experience of the Nazi concentration camp victim, as described in as Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, become equally simply “saturated phenomena.” In Le croire pour le venir, for example, Gschwandtner observes, “Marion compares the witness of holiness to the witness of extermination on the death camps” without remarking upon the drastic ethical or moral difference between these two saturated phenomena. (PA, 155) In a review of Marion’s Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, John D. Caputo observes that, for Marion, even the Christian God is simply “the saturated phenomenon par excellence (Caputo, 2006, 986), which suggests that, for Marion, the Christian God is also “given” or “present,” not simply in the Christian sacraments, in sainthood or sacrifice, or in scriptural revelation, but even in the violent experiences of sadomasochistic sexual conquest (DG 100–113), or extreme historical experiences like Waterloo or Auschwitz. (DG 30–32; 44–45) This insistence on the omnipresence of the Christian God also raises difficult questions about God’s role, for good or for evil, in world-historical events, and makes the critical reader wonder what Marion sees of “God” in catastrophes like Waterloo, Auschwitz, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the only response that Marion makes to critics who object: “What will you say to me if I say to you that where you see God, I see nothing?” is: “Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean there isn’t something there to see!” (Marion, 2008, 124) But can the simple reassertion of the continued existence of the Christian God be considered an adequate response to the crisis of faith suffered by survivors of the Nazi Holocaust or Jewish Shoah?

Answering this question might appear necessary for a postmodern apologetics that meets the daunting challenge of this crisis of faith in the 21st-century postmodern world. Gschwandtner courageously raises this difficult question, which strikes at the heart of the contemporary crisis of faith. But it is finally left up to the reader to find the answer to it, with (or without?) the assistance of the French postmodern theologians whose philosophical works are surveyed in Gschwandtner’s Postmodern Apologetics?.

Additional Works Cited

John D. Caputo, “Review of Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 74, no. 4 (December, 2006): 986–989.

Jean-Luc Marion, “The Banality of Saturation,” in The Visible and the Revealed, (tr.) C. M. Gschwandtner (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 119–144.

Jeffery W. Robbins, “Introduction” to John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God, (ed.) J. W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 1–24.