The Experience of God: A Postmodern Response. Edited by Kevin Hart and Barbara Wall


Pp. xii, 264 . Fordham University Press , 2005 , pb $25.00, hb $75.00.

Is it possible to speak of the ‘experience of God’ in any meaningful way? Is the concept of ‘experience’ legitimate, or is it irredeemably tainted by modern assumptions regarding subjects and objects? How could finite beings experience an infinite God? How might God disclose Himself, if He is unavailable to sense experience? And even if such experience were conceivable, how could it avoid turning into some form of idolatry? As the title indicates, the essays in this volume attempt to rethink the notion of experience (p. xi) and provide a postmodern response to these questions. ‘Postmodern’ is a slippery adjective, but it is apt given the variety of perspectives that are present here; the book draws not only on phenomenology and other strands of Continental philosophy, but also theology, literature, and feminism. Instead of succumbing to eclecticism, however, the discussion exhibits a surprising coherence regarding its theme.

Kevin Hart's introduction opens the book by outlining the problems that arise with the expression ‘the experience of God’, as well as some of the most prominent philosophical and theological positions on the matter. What is intriguing about the introduction, as well as the volume as a whole, is its consistent discussion of the ‘experience of God’ rather than ‘religious experience’. Nor do the contributors attempt to situate this discussion within the broader notion of religious experience. Without surmising as to the rationale for this omission, the discussion definitely gains a clearer purpose by focusing on the experience of God rather than the many varieties of religious experience – not all of which must include a concept of the Deity.

John D. Caputo explores the Derridean theme of the ‘impossible’ as the link between the terms ‘God’ and ‘experience’. Caputo proposes that the experience of God is possible on the basis of the experience of the impossible – i.e. that which ‘shatters the horizon of expectation and forseeability’ (p. 21). Rather than limiting experience to determinate conditions of possibility, à la Kant or Husserl, Caputo directs our attention to limit-experiences that overturn such conditions. Ultimately Caputo suggests that this experience of the impossible points beyond particular historical notions of God, to another of his favourite Derridean themes, that of ‘religion without religion’ (pp. 38–41).

Approaching the question of experience from a feminist perspective, Kristine A. Culp maintains that appeals to female experience cannot of themselves provide an adequate basis for feminist theology (p. 48). At the same time, ‘experience’ should not be discarded, since ‘a rich, living engagement with the world provides the basis for questioning false authority and dogma’ (p. 49). Experience – including the experience of God – is ambiguous, but we are accountable to others for interpreting the experiences with which we are entrusted, and for ‘using well the knowledge and power that we gain’ (p. 60). Crystal Lucky's essay also develops this theme of female experience – in particular, the experience of ‘black preaching women’ in the nineteenth century (p.174).

In addition to editing the volume, Kevin Hart also contributes an essay in which he sets his discussion of ‘The Experience of the Kingdom of God’ against the background of the New Testament (p. 78). Hart focuses on the priority of prayer in the experience of the Kingdom of God, arguing that prayer is always a response rather than a gesture of mastery that we initiate. God is the subject, not the object of prayer, which means that the praying ‘I’ experiences a movement outside his control – a ‘counterexperience’– in which the immanence of the subject is ruptured and called into question (pp. 79–81).

The theme of prayer also animates Jean-Yves Lacoste's essay, which takes a phenomenological approach to liturgical experience. Lacoste employs a Heideggerian analysis of Mitbefindlichkeit to examine the way in which coaffective experience forms the praying ‘we’ of the liturgy (p. 93). The phenomenological tradition is well represented in this volume, with the names of Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, and Marion peppering many of the essays. Michael Purcell's essay on ‘the inexperience of God’– i.e. God's hiddenness – draws primarily on Levinas. Michael F. Andrews' illuminating essay on Edith Stein discusses her departure from orthodox Husserlian phenomenology (pp. 137–40, 152), as well as the similarities of her work to Marion's – specifically in its commitment to the apophatic tradition of Dionysius the Areopagite and John of the Cross (pp. 142–44, 154). Jeffrey Bloechl's essay explores related themes of decentred subjectivity and mystical unknowing, drawing not only on the phenomenological and mystical tradition, but on Nietzsche as well.

Finally, Kim Paffenroth's essay is a pleasant surprise, given her admittedly unlikely pairing of Pascal's Pensées and Melville's Moby-Dick. Paffenroth develops the similarity in the way that Pascal and Melville treat the human encounter with God, which reveals the interweaving of human greatness and human wretchedness (p. 201). In addition to these fine contributions, the first five essays in the book are enhanced by the inclusion of the original responses from the conference at which this volume originated (at Villanova University in 2001). In sum, this is a rich and enjoyable collection that will interest anyone tracking recent intersections of Continental philosophy, theology, and religious studies.