Language and Spirit. Edited by D. Z. Phillips and M. von der Ruhr, D. Z. Phillips' Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses. Edited by A. F. Sanders and Whose God? Which Tradition? The Nature of Belief in God. Edited by D. Z. Phillips
Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 516–518, May 2009
How to Cite
Ewbank, M. (2009), Language and Spirit. Edited by D. Z. Phillips and M. von der Ruhr, D. Z. Phillips' Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses. Edited by A. F. Sanders and Whose God? Which Tradition? The Nature of Belief in God. Edited by D. Z. Phillips. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 516–518. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_8.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. viii, 153 . Houndmills , Palgrave Macmillan , 2004 , $97.75/£55.00.
Pp. ix, 232 . Aldershot , Ashgate , 2007 , $97.75/£55.00.
Pp. x, 173 . Aldershot , Ashgate , 2008 , $88.85/£50.00.
These three collections of penetrating essays are unified by Phillips's refreshingly incisive responses that offer succinct, cogent antidotes to any traces of latent romanticism that might incline one to legitimate deceptively unified accounts of either past speculative achievements or the supposed depth and extent of contemporary confusions, and they often remind one of the need to purge simplistic dualist connotations from discourse when speaking of creator and creation. As well, Phillips's concern to elucidate issues with viable redescriptions in ordinary language to reinvigorate interest in truth will challenge any explanations entrenched within coherence obscured by excessively technical elaborations or seemingly tenuous claims of correspondence.
Language and Spirit includes: A. Min on Hegel's dialectic of spirit; M. von der Ruhr on Romanticism; M. Westphal on Kierkegaard; S. Ogden on Bultmann; P. Sherry on God as Spirit; and J. Kellenberger on spirit and truth. Early on Phillips acknowledges that ‘philosophy may clarify ‘things of the spirit’, including the notion of ‘God as Spirit’, but whether it leads one to embrace any of these is not a matter that can be determined philosophically’, for while ‘the theologian is the guardian of the grammar of faith … the philosopher has no such obligation [since] he is motivated by a desire to do conceptual justice to the world in all its variety’. (pp. 7, 129) In this sense, it is a principal philosophical concern to seek ‘overreaching concepts’ capable of elucidating the maximal horizon of experience, such as ‘manifestations of spirit’, a notion that cannot be simply equated with Christocentric notions. (pp. 129, 63) While it is a mistake ‘to try to give a positive account, in some epistemic way, to account for matters which do not arise’, one must not ‘speak of ‘God's voice’ in an unmediated way’, which even Kierkegaard occasionally did. As Wittgenstein remarked, ‘the place ‘beyond’ all language-games and forms of life is no place at all’, and since ‘it is only in terms of these language-games that we come to understand what it means to pray to God’, our ‘belief in God's existence, therefore, cannot be the presupposition of them’. (pp. 146–147; 90) Thus it is preferable to say that ‘human beings have histories’ rather than ‘historicity is what belongs to human beings’, an echo of Wittgenstein's insistence that it is misleading to say that truth and falsity belong to propositions when ‘we only call something a proposition if it can be true or false’. (p. 111)
D. Z. Phillips's Contemplative Philosophy of Religion: Questions and Responses is comprised of sympathetic and occasionally critical reflections on Phillips's previous treatments of various topics. It contrasts with the previous collection not only in this but also in the more fully developed responses by Phillips after each essay. Included are: S. Mulhall on three styles of philosophical architecture within Wittgenstein's temple; M. von der Ruhr on philosophy, theology and heresy; T. Kurtén on whether internal realism is shared by Phillips and Tillich; W. van Herck on piety; I. Dalferth on cultural pluralism, conflict, and dialogue; and H. Vroom on philosophy of religion in pluralistic culture. Phillips has long contested what he judged to be misconstruals of the overall implications of Wittgenstein's achievement, which resonates in his view that even in an age concerned with progress, problem-solving, and skills one can never slight the centrality of ‘a contemplative conception of philosophy’ that not only waits on texts that challenge ‘any already crystallised conception, but also on criticism and counter-criticisms to see the conceptual character of disagreement in context’, for ‘contemplative acknowledgement is wider than what we appropriate personally’. (pp. 34, 30)
An important aspect of this endeavour is the dissolution of unfounded dichotomies between the literal and the metaphysical in certain contexts, for not only should it not be assumed ‘that ‘the literal’ is confined to what is empirically factual’, but also one can not indefinitely ignore a primary human concern, and here Phillips relies on the portrayals by R. Rhees in which death is seen as hope for eternal life, for even though ‘philosophy cannot answer these questions for anyone, … it can point to those that need to be asked’. (pp. 82, 92) Similarly, a contemplative philosophy as elucidated by Phillips will neutralise ‘illusory sources of comfort’, whether such be a ‘religious individualism’ in which one presumes inviolability because she or he supposedly possesses certainty of salvation; ‘religious rationalism’, which would delusionally diminish the real impact of cultural changes on religious beliefs by appealing to easy formal arguments that supposedly transcend ‘the relativity of cultural contexts’; or ‘religious accommodation’, that fails to testify to the excellence of what is believed. The Church, and by extension any proponent of truth, can only speak ‘as one having authority, not as one who decided to speak with authority’. (pp. 122–123)
Philosophical ascesis concerning language and concepts can not only assist in dispelling ‘a magical view of signs’, but also clarify petitionary prayer ‘not as an attempt to influence the will of God, but as an attempt to participate in it’, confirm that central judgments about God are ‘not one of predication but of identity’, and dispel any ‘religion of lies that is big business’ which would seek to ignore or even discredit the fact that ‘the most extreme of circumstances are those when life visits human beings with such affliction that it destroys a sustaining faith’. (pp. 149–151) As a correlate, in contemplating the diversification of religion(s), philosophy challenges any absolutisation, whether it be in the form of reductive naturalism that ‘imposes an alien grammar on major forms of religion’, exclusivism that would deny ‘a plurality of shared spiritual realities’ under different names, or pluralism that either might insist that ‘no religion has a complete revelation of God’ since each is a specific ‘cultural manifestation’ or that true religion is merely ‘a synthesis of the values’ found to be transcendentally common to all world religions which must learn from each other. (pp. 168–169) Philosophy must always ‘resist replacing one general account of [radical pluralism] by another’, whether with quietism or egalitarian relativism, for these would rob philosophy of its discerning role. Yet, while contemplative philosophy can never acquiesce in coercive caricatures of its task, it does not deny the ‘conditions of one's existence’, such as arising from within a ‘particular tradition’ that implies an operative ‘single-mindedness’. Rather, the constant challenges involved in pursuing truly disinterested maximal comprehension of diversity within meaning and being even ‘gives us reason to be suspicious of metaphysical suspicion’ since ‘for philosophy, nothing is hidden’. (pp. 206–209)
Whose God? Which Tradition?: The Nature of Belief in God, is intriguingly distinct in tone from the prior two collections in that, with the exception of A. K. Min's reflections on Christian dilemmas in speaking of the unknowable God and P. Helm's reflections on anthropo-morphism Protestant style, the remaining presentations are by prominent scholars within areas of Mediaeval speculation, and particularly Aquinas. These include F. Kerr's reflections on God as beyond subject and object; G. Klima on the grammar of God and Being; J. F. Ross on simplicity and talk about God; B. Davies on whether God is a moral agent; and D. B. Burrell on anthropomorphism in Catholic contexts. Aside from Phillips's comprehensive introduction on God and grammar, a unity is granted to the different reflections by inclusion of Phillips's reportationes of discussions that transpired after each presentation, although they do not grant ready discernment of whether one is reading the interpreted's interpretation or Phillips's interpretation of interpretations.
In his introduction, however, he adverts to how important it is that one not rely upon sweeping generalisations contrasting ‘tradition’ with ‘the modern trend’ in contemporary philosophy of religion, since not only are genuine philosophers as distinct as their fingerprints, if I might use a favored description of J. Owens, but also because ‘a tradition itself may be confused’. (p. 6) As well, Phillips denies that his positions imply affinity with considerations of ‘God as ‘being as such’ or ‘The ground of being’’. (p. 9) While each essay in this collection is comprehensive and substantive, one may surmise that the untimely death of Phillips before the work went to press precluded inclusion of a final chapter in which he might have responded extensively and in propria voce to each presentation. As it stands, it is as though one is present at a performance of renowned vocalists in which the principal member of an ensemble looses his voice and a hauntingly ambivalent interval of silence temporarily prevails.
G. Gaston Granger once suggested that the Tractatus proposes a ‘negative’ philosophy seeking to circumscribe the frontiers of the thinkable concerning God, not by stating the reality of the world but by delimiting what is thinkable and expressible within a language. This view is reinforced and clarified by P. Hadot's more recent reflections on Wittgenstein. Arguably, more sustained, detailed attention ought to be given to exactly how this encoded Phillips's assimilation of Wittgenstein and others, although initial groundwork for such is provided in P. F. Bloemendaal's recent Grammars of Faith: A Critical Evaluation of D. Z. Phillips's Philosophy of Religion. Regardless, Phillips's overall strategy to challenge any who propose deceptively coherent responses to ultimate questions may also remind one of L. Goodman's God of Abraham that portrays history as replete with recastings and restructurings of past insights derived from original thematics of the Revelation tradition(s) by sublimation and sublation into a tacit continuity that perdures, in spite of divergent interests and referents that stress, yet only seemingly rupture past from present and self from other(s). Phillips's vigorous responses and engaging questions testify in muted fashion to the possession of a rich knowledge of philosophy's history, as well as a masterful ability to hold in tension central factors portrayed within emphases on historicity in attaining truth with a tacit acknowledgment of the supremacy of relational reflexive judgements that apophatically purify previously attained conceptualisation(s) through dialogical engagement.