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Monday, February 12, 2007

David Hart on Dupré

I came across a review in First Things by David Bentley Hart of the book Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection: Excursions in the Phenomenology and Philosophy of Religion by Louis Dupre - it's interesting, as it's about religious experience. I've just posted the first three paragraphs since it's long, and I didn't think I could do it justice by picking and choosing bits ...


The nine essays that constitute this volume are all concerned, in some fashion or another, with questions of religious experience: its form, its nature, its susceptibility (or resistance) to philosophical scrutiny, its very possibility in cultures that have (for the most part) taken leave of all their gods. The collection as a whole, however, derives its unity (not to mention a kind of haunting urgency) from its pervasive concern with one question in particular: how does one describe the subjective and objective elements of religious experience without reducing one to the other, or reducing religious experience in general to some merely anthropological constant, devoid of any transcendent dimension?

The richest and most suggestive piece in the collection is perhaps the first ("Phenomenology of Religion: Limits and Possibilities"). Could there be a phenomenology of religious experience (or, as Dupré prefers to say, of the "religious act") that would take equal and unprejudiced account both of the objective symbolism in which every properly religious phenomenon is made available to consciousness and of the subjective experience by which the believer receives and (in phenomenological parlance) intends the object of faith? The Romantics tended to dissolve all religion into an expressive subjectivity, while the "scientific" study of religions tends to treat religious symbols simply as functions of the "human" or the "social." Dupré argues, on the other hand, that only if the two moments are taken together in their integral dependence on one another does it become possible to describe the peculiar kind of intentionality that informs the religious act. Religious acts (as opposed to other "symbolic" intentions) present a unique problem, though, because while the experience is inescapably immanent, it comprehends a transcendent object. And so the question must be raised: can there really be a phenomenology of religion, in the end, that accomplishes more than a sort of clinical examination of the various extrinsic forms of religious expression?

Dupré’s answer is that there can and must be, because the transcendence of the object of religious intention appears within the religious experience itself, in its very constitution, and so no responsible or meaningful phenomenology dare ignore the degree to which, within the religious act, human symbolic creativity is provoked and saturated by an object that transcends it - or to be more precise, by an object that is intended as transcendent. No phenomenology that ignores the fundamental passivity at the heart of the religious act, the element of irreducible givenness that is experienced in the object (and so experienced as exceeding the symbolic forms that embody the subjective intention), can really be said to have disclosed the distinctively religious within the field of its investigations. The argument at this point is delightfully lucid, and only mildly subversive: within the expansive "science" of philosophical phenomenology, which means to limit reflection to objects that appear within immanent cognition as representation or as value, the contours of an experience of transcendence as such can be glimpsed. Since the religious activity of symbolic religious representation invokes and expresses in stable and analogous forms that which exceeds all representation, phenomenology cannot deny that a radical receptivity invests our active projections of symbolic meaning with more significance than they can-as objects of immanent reflection-contain. The symbols do not exhaust or even capture their transcendent object. But, then, what is the relation of this transcendence to these symbolic forms? Is the transcendent merely a noumenal absence from representation, a silence that our symbols indicate but cannot reflect? Is religious meaning, in short, a message or merely a construction? .......


Dupré, a writer on postmodernism and the T. Lawrason Riggs professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale, is an interesting guy. For further reading, here's an interview with him - Seeking Christian Interiority.


Blogger Paul said...

To me this is one of those very basic and important topics in religion. "Religious experience" covers a lot of ground. One category of religious experience might be termed "unitive" or "monistic" - the "one with God" or "one with the universe" types of consciousness. Just the mere act of verbalizing such experiences introduces differences in the language people use to describe them.

Most of what I've read about unitive-type experiences - Evelyn Underhill, Walter Stacey, William James, some things on Buddhism - discusses this type of experience as not fitting into either the subjective or objective category.

7:21 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul,

I didn't really understand the book review very well, but in general I see a difference in kinds of religious experience ... the unitive kind you're talking about, and another kind where God and the person having the experience remain disticnt, if that makes any sense - God is the transcendant object. But for the most part, I'm lost in this stuff :-)

11:27 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

I think one reason I appreciate the unitive type is that it's at least readily idenfifiable. Also, I think it's hard not to come away from it changed for the better. When you get into the visions and voices sort of thing, to me it gets harder to distinguish the psychological from the spiritual.

11:25 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

I think I must have some buried feelings about unitive experience and what I think it means, because I so dislike it. To me, it seems to say that you can only be with God if you make yourself disappear.

I do worry about wether I'm talking to myself when I do imaginitive prayer, but I think the possibility of fooling oneself exists in unitive prayer too ... who's to say that feeling you get isn't just a physiological response to relaxation and quieting the mind?

Maybe it's a just apersonality thing, which works best for whom?

1:44 PM  

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