“The point is to think philosophically about Christianity”
3:AM: In your last book you explore themes in Christianity that revolve around the figures of glory and night which you say ‘fundamentally disrupt Platonism and Greek philosophy from Plato to Heidegger.’ So what does change when we start ‘thinking after Greece’? And I thought there was a lot of Greek philosophy influencing the early Church Fathers – so is this approach historically justified?
Felix Ó Murchadha: To begin with the last point, the answer I think is yes and no. The enmeshing of Christianity with Greek philosophy is complex: not alone did Greek philosophy supply the vocabulary in which Christianity could be discussed within the educated milieu of the Roman Empire, but also it was imperative for early Christians in justifying the conversion of Gentiles to show the continuity of Christianity with that of Greek thought. Nevertheless, already in St. Paul we can see a radical critique of philosophy and at certain key points, in particular concerning the resurrection, it was recognized that Christianity transcended Greek thinking. Indeed, the very distinction between philosophy and theology is a Christian one, unknown to the Greeks.
My argument, however, is not a historical one. Rather, I want to claim that if we think certain Christian motifs such as glory and night, but also faith, sin, creation, incarnation, kairos, love as agape, what we find is that these explode the conceptuality of Greek thought – a conceptuality informing us to this day. Above all else what Christianity does is disrupt what I call a sacred logic in Greek thinking, particularly in Platonism but also in Aristotelianism and the Hellenic Schools. Basically what I mean by this is that Greek philosophy reflects the Olympian hierarchy of Greek religion: the dominance of sky over earth and the ascetic drive to purify the spiritual of the material. The Christian account of the incarnation where god becomes not simply human, but human in the sense of flesh and blood – a god who urinates and who suffers shameful and painful death – explodes this logic and allows us to think materiality for the first time as something more than a necessary evil. Of course, and I go into some detail in the book in discussing this, the ascetic and sacred practices of Greek philosophy are found in Christianity too and form a Gnostic strand which we can trace to the present day. But, thinking after Greece in this context is thinking Christianity free of Gnosticism.
3:AM: So what do you mean by ‘glory’ and ‘night’ and how do they link with the idea of a phenomenology of Christian life?
FOM: The impetus for A Phenomenology of Christian Life came from the realization that the word ‘doxa’ was employed by the Septuagint translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to render the Hebrew ‘kabod’. Doxa in turn is translated into Latin as gloria – glory. Of course, for the philosophically educated ‘doxa’ means opinion, is the lower level of Plato’s divided line in opposition to episteme, knowledge. The common root is in the phrase dokei moi, which means ‘it appears so to me’ – doxa as opinion is the expression of how this appears to me as such and such; as glory, the mode of appearing is of that which the world cannot contain, appearing as hidden because of an excess which undermines the conditions of possibility of appearance of things (conditions of world and of self or subject). Such appearance breaks with the possibility of correspondence of object and subject, undermines the drive for mastery on the part of the knowing self, and calls for a particular type of response, namely praise (doxazo). Glory as an excess of appearance is blinding. It is blinding because it is a turning from the light of the world. While in worldly terms night is the lack of day, the lack of light, glory appeals to a sight which sees its object not in terms of the world, not that is as relative to a context from which it derives its meaning and sense, but rather sees the object in its singularity, indeed in its singular materiality. While philosophy in its Greek inheritance (in which we stand to this day) remains a discourse of light and as such one which remains on the surface of things, Christianity seeks the dark materiality of its object, because the Christian understands god as manifest in the ‘least of things’, things in their leastness (if you will excuse such a barbarous term), that is, as singular material revelations.
A phenomenology of Christian life then is one which attempts to be true to such phenomena or better such a being of phenomenon, phenomenon as in the world but not of the world.
3:AM: How does the work of Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion help establish this distinctive Christian philosophy?
FOM: Heidegger famously said of Christian philosophy that it was a ‘wooden iron’ and I am not sure that he is wrong in that. Ultimately, philosophy cannot be Christian, if by that is meant a philosophical defense of Christianity. Rather, the point is to think philosophically about Christianity, that is, about those phenomena and that phenomenality which is characteristic of Christian accounts without either granting those account authority or excluding them on principle.
Henry and Marion have understood the ‘end of metaphysics’ as in invitation to return to the non-metaphysical in Christianity. What Henry contributes to this is an emphasis on life. Specifically he shows how Christianity sees life as irreducible to worldliness because of the latter’s externality, its surface without depth. Similarly, Marion shows that Christianity thinks beyond being in thinking the givenness as gift. While they negotiate in different ways the difference between philosophy and theology, they both share the insight that Christian phenomena lose sense and intelligibility when understood in terms of the world. Unfortunately, both thinkers remain tied to the Gnosticism, I mentioned before. Henry is quite explicit about this, Marion less so. In both a certain polarity emerges between life (Henry) or givenness (Marion) and world, such that the directedness towards the phenomenon happens in response to a withdrawal from materiality of the object rather than a immersing in it. In this sense I think the later Merleau-Ponty offers a mode of thought which is more fruitful in articulating the paradoxical Christian account of materiality as that which is both appearing in the world and yet escapes the superficial – that is surface and light – logic of the world.