A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion: Key Figures, Formative Influences and Subsequent Debates. By James L. Cox and Transcendence and Phenomenology. Edited by Peter M. Candler, Jr. and Conor Cunningham


Pp. viii, 267 , London : T & T Clark International , 2006 , £23.00.

Pp. xxvi, 534 , London : SCM Press , 2007 , £65.00.

The differences between these two volumes illustrate the contrast between how phenomenology intersects with religious studies and how it intersection with theology. Cox considers phenomenology as a method that can be, and has been, used in the academic study of religion. The contributors to Transcendence and Phenomenology consider what resources the phenomenological tradition offers for constructive religious – especially Christian – thought. Juxtaposing these two volumes underscores the question that both volumes individually ponder: is phenomenology a neutral, secular philosophical method that can be applied to various objects, one of which is religion, or is the phenomenological method itself always implicated in questions of religion?

Billing itself as a companion text for religious studies methodology courses, Cox's Guide presents the thought of a wide range of key thinkers whose work has contributed to the development of the ‘phenomenology of religion’. One of the book's virtues is its inclusion of important but oft-overlooked figures who straddle the philosophy-theology divide: Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Herrmann, A. G. Hogg, and Ernst Troeltsch, among others. Cox's strengths lie in mapping out the terrain rather than in detailing its intricacies: his heavy reliance on secondary sources, and his occasional loose use of language, are not reassuring to the philosophically-minded reader. In addition to a pedagogically-oriented explication of the phenomenological tradition, Cox's book is also an intervention in the academic debate about the legitimacy of phenomenology as a method for religious studies. By providing a thicker and more nuanced account of phenomenology than is often in play in these debates, Cox offers a resource for a robust defense of the phenomenological tradition.

One of the refreshing aspects of Cox's book is the way it geographically de-centers methodological debates. A prominent (‘decisive’) role is given to W. Brede Kristensen, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and C. Jouco Bleeker, three Dutch historians of religion who worked from the late 19th centuries to the mid 20th centuries. Their contributions are often overshadowed in the discipline's historical self-understanding by the towering presence of Mircea Eliade, especially in North America (Cox discusses Eliade in a portion of his chapter on the ‘Chicago School’; he gives nearly equal space to Jonathan Z. Smith, who Cox locates as a critic of Eliade). Furthermore, Cox intriguingly proposes that the origins of the academic study of religion in the United Kingdom are to be located in the British colonial experience. Foundational figures in the discipline, including Edwin W. Smith, E. Geoffrey Parrinder, and Andrew Walls, spent formative years in the Cape Province and other colonies. It was in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1949, according to Cox, that the progenitor of the modern religious studies department was born. By re-narrating the development of the discipline, Cox forces scholars to question the goals, methods, and political implications of their work. (Transcendence and Phenomenology also de-centers its subject to some extent: there is a refreshingly high degree of engagement with non-Anglophone scholarship. However, many of the contributors still suffer from that rather obnoxious affliction of taking themselves to be talking about phenomenology while it is only French and Germans who do phenomenology.)

It is not so much ‘transcendence’ but the linkage between immanence and transcendence that animates many of the reflections in Transcendence and Phenomenology. Although the full gamut of figures in the tradition make appearances – from Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer to Levinas, Derrida, and Marion – the work of Michel Henry (to whose memory the volume is dedicated) receives special attention. A late essay by Henry, ‘Phenomenology of Life,’ is included in the volume, and a number of the other essays either directly or indirectly begin to unravel what might be meant when Henry identifies ‘life’, considered phenomenologically, with ‘revelation’, and when he opposes it to ‘the appearing of the world’ (247). The ‘essence’ of Word, flesh, and life are one, according to Henry. In ‘life’ the distinction between ‘that which appears and pure appearing’ collapses, and what is left is at once absolute immanence and transcendence. Henry's stance is distinctive, and the alternative approach to phenomenology that his work represents has long been overshadowed in the Anglophone literature by Levinas' approach (which also receives a generous amount of discussion in the volume).

Transcendence and Phenomenology is one of the first products of the University of Nottingham's new Centre of Theology and Philosophy, of which John Milbank is the director. However, the contributions to this volume do not represent the strict adherence to ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ found in the eponymous volume edited by Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock. Many of the contributions to Transcendence and Phenomenology deal primarily with issues of historical-philosophical exegesis (e.g., What is the relationship of Heidegger's thought to Dilthey's? How does Merleau-Ponty read Freud?) and only gesture towards the theological implications of their subjects' thought. Others, though, forcefully assert the identity of philosophical and theological inquiry (besides Milbank's own contribution, the contributions of Michael Purcell, Felix O Murchadha, and Conor Cunningham make this point).

Cox's book and the edited collection address questions to each other which are never fully answered. Transcendence and Phenomenology offers ammunition to the secular critic of the phenomenological method in the academic study of religion: if the contributors are correct, theological commitments are inextricable from the phenomenological method. This criticism seems weightier than the usual complaint that phenomenology's bracketing move immunizes the object of religious studies from critical investigation. On the other hand, in light of Cox's Guide, can the philosophical-theological investigations of Transcendence and Phenomenology set out a technique for investigation of more ‘exotic’ religions than Christianity? Some of the contributors would probably disclaim the possibility of separating descriptive and normative components that such an investigation implies. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see how the contributors would assimilate African witchcraft or Korean shamanism, say, into the ‘infinite integral identity’ which truth ‘begins to disclose’ (Milbank, 333). Despite extensive discussion of ‘otherness’ in the volume, an encounter with a genuine ‘other’ would perhaps offer a provocative challenge to the book's philosophical-theological orientation.