Modern Theology

An Introduction to Jean-Yves Lacoste by Joeri Schrijvers (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), ix + 205 pp.


Joeri Schrijvers is one of the foremost interpreters of Jean-Yves Lacoste today. This book sets the standard for future engagement with Lacoste's thought. Schrijvers displays a thorough knowledge of Lacoste's central philosophical influences, Husserl and especially Heidegger. He also evidences a deep familiarity with the body of Lacoste's writings. This book complements Schrijvers' previous work Ontotheological Turnings?: The Decentering of the Modern Subject in Recent French Phenomenology (2011), a study of Levinas, Marion and Lacoste's attempts to “overcome” modern ontotheology.

An Introduction to Jean-Yves Lacoste is thematically arranged and presents a more or less diachronic interpretation of Lacoste's entire oeuvre from Note sur le temps (1990) to Être en danger (2011), with attention also to a number of Lacoste's more important essays. Schrijvers' aim is to explicate the consequences of some of the “numerous shifts, considerable displacements and quite a few evolutions” that have marked Lacoste's thinking over the course of its development (p. 14). His thesis is that there is a basic shift in Lacoste's work “from the parousiacal moment in light of the horizon of non-experience in the earlier work to the non-experience surrounded by and embedded in multiple moments of presence, peace and, perhaps, experience in the later work” (p. 158; cf. p. 113). In other words, one can discern in Lacoste's work a “trajectory from the early, rather conventional, and at times somewhat conservative theological approach, to the innovative and radical philosophy of [his] later works” (p. 1). It is Schrijvers' great merit to offer an original and at times provocative total reading of Lacoste's oeuvre.

Through Schijvers' book we glean several important insights: first, that Lacoste is a thinker of both philosophy and theology at once; second, that his phenomenology succeeds at integrating the foundational influences of both Husserl and Heidegger; third, that Lacoste's central and summative concept, “liturgical experience,” transgresses both “world” (early Heidegger) and “earth” (later Heidegger) by virtue of the human capacity to choose how they dwell, whether in the (atheist) world, on the (pagan) earth, or “liturgically,” before God; and, finally, that Lacoste's explication of the primacy of affectivity for human life is marked by both already constructed hierarchies of meaning and an anarchic set of unmasterable multiplicities that threaten any phenomenology of the human person that aspires to some level of completeness. It is the progressively dawning awareness of this “ ‘plurality of possibilities’ at the foundation of all our experiences” (p. 14) that, for Schrijvers, serves as the fundamental interpretive principle of Lacoste's corpus and discloses the meta-narrative behind it.

The first five chapters are individual studies of central theological-philosophical themes in Lacoste that reach their first summit in 1994 with Experience and the Absolute, including the body (ch. 2), prayer (ch. 3), conversion (ch. 4) and the “holy fool” (ch. 5). The first chapter, on the sacraments, elaborates Lacoste's early phenomenology of confession. Indeed, Lacoste's concept of the “liturgical” stems from some early theological essays on the sacraments. Chapters six and seven chronicle the accumulation of “corrections” that seem to emerge in Lacoste's writings after 1994, first regarding the critical revision of the “violent” and “extreme” account of liturgical experience in its relation to the world (ch. 6) and the supplementary qualifications of the absolute quality of the liturgical found in analogous “profane” experiences (such as art or the experience of rest) conditioned by his recovery of the central place of affectivity in human experience (ch. 7).

Chapter eight is dedicated to Lacoste's last work, Être en danger. Schrijvers suggests that Être en danger, particularly its “phenomenology of (spiritual) life,” is the crown of Lacoste's oeuvre, since here the disordered pluralities at the base of existence emerge with all their force. This becomes the teleological starting point for a coherent reading. For Lacoste, the late medieval distinction between philosophy and theology is an unforgettable historical event, the founding one of “modernity,” yet one that is not necessary for contemporary “theological thinking,” and to which there may be good reasons to bid farewell. Here, again, we see the reason for his “frontier thinking” between philosophy and theology. Yet within this frontier we quickly come to see that it is of the unique and problematic nature of Christian revelation to impose a certain pressure on all historical experience and thinking: eschatology. And here we tie this reason down to its intelligible cause. From this vantage Lacoste's basic task is to take up anew the integrated philosophia of the first Christian millennium that the philosophers and theologians of the medieval university set aside when human reason (the domain of the philosophers) is isolated from revelation and particularly from its eschatological conditions (the domain to which the theologians are restricted), thereby creating the conditions for the kind of philosophy and theology that reaches its apogee in the “totalizing” systems of recent memory (and to which contemporary modes of thought are still responding). For Lacoste, then, true “postmodern” theology is found most fully in recovering the importance of the eschatological conditions for reason, for experience and for the meaning of human being. Only in light of the eschatological does our historicity and finitude emerge with the most clarity—and, arguably, the appropriate “anarchic” quality of human experience. Plurality does not contradict eschatological unity. It is the faintly but decisively revealed intelligibility-to-come that, like a dim palimpsest, proposes itself as possible, as the uttermost possibility for the meaning of human experience.

Eschatology, of course, already makes its presence known through the pages of Schrijvers' book, but not yet with the force and substance of a foundational theme. Therefore the view that Lacoste moves from conservative reactionary to progressive thinker increasingly embracing a “theological agnosticism” (pp. 44, 186) and a concomitantly nebulous “spirituality” of the ordinary (see pp. 35–36, 56) seem like positions that themselves would collapse the very tension of the eschatological that found Lacoste's program of thinking. It may be better in this case to perceive Lacoste as carrying forward the very program of the ressourcement thinkers of the previous generation who understood themselves as reconnecting with the heart of Catholic orthodoxy. Granted, anyone—as happened to Henri de Lubac himself—creatively appropriating orthodoxy with self-conscious fidelity in order to engage the questions of his day is bound to appear as “progressive” in one place and “reactionary” in another. This gives us pause. The pluralisation of possibilities and the epistemic reserve that mark such eschatological thinking remind us of its unique magnification of historicity, temporality and materiality. It is both a theological conclusion and a philosophical assumption for eschatological thinking that the concrete “theological” affirmations of historical faith are not in direct competition with “philosophical” observations of human experience, even if and precisely because of the presence of this creative tension that can only be resolved eschatologically. Faith first makes room for thought here. And it is the awareness and fidelity to this very tension that makes Lacoste's work so compelling and is again and again his major point. This application of the logic of the eschatological could explain much regarding the transitions and revisions that Schrijvers discerns in Lacoste's trajectory, as does the following observation: the passage from the earlier, more explicitly theologically-oriented texts (Note sur temps) to the later, more philosophically-oriented (Être en danger), may be simply a matter of orientation; it does not need to be invested with the interpretation that Schrijvers applies. If we are to take the idea of “frontier” seriously, we may have to acknowledge only that lately Lacoste has been inhabiting the regions that shade toward the more philosophical. It is still not certain whether any idea within the latter texts actually calls into question the explicit theology of the earlier texts. One can strongly doubt whether the “eclipse of a certain kind of eschatology” (p. 190) implied by the philosophical reserve toward theological knowledge in Être en danger is “the whole story” for theology according to Lacoste. Yet Schrijvers is right that something is happening here, and that it stems from a critical stance toward any and every instrumentalization of the theological. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the alternative hermeneutical path opened here takes nothing away from Schrijvers' accomplishment with this volume. I offer it merely as a counterpoint that highlights the substantial force of his interpretation and to signal what looks like the best point of interrogation.

An Introduction to Jean-Yves Lacoste is a comprehensive introduction to a thinker whose English-language reception is still very small (only one of Lacoste's major works has been translated: Experience and the Absolute, in 2004). There is also, of course, his foremost editorial venture, the three-volume Encyclopedia of Christian Theology (2004) which has already seen three editions in its original French iteration. I must also mention the text of his 2010 Richards Lectures, From Theology to Theological Thinking, forthcoming from University of Virginia Press. We are indebted to Schrijvers for a well-argued and bold account of the work of a remarkable figure in contemporary Continental thought whose influence will only continue to grow, not least because of this major book.