The end of transcendence in continental philosophy of religion?

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This article’s primary thesis is that the shift in meaning of the concept of transcendence – especially in Continental philosophy of religion – is of such a nature that one might question whether one should talk about “the end of transcendence” in this discipline. Ironically, the past 15 years have shown a renewed interest in the concept of transcendence in a variety of disciplines. What is meant by transcendence varies in these disciplines, but the shift in meaning towards a more immanent understanding thereof is consistent.

Transcendence (from the Latin trans + scendere – to climb across, surmount) refers to the exceeding of certain boundaries. Transcendence is thus related to where and how something is transcended, to that which has been transcended, and for what reason it was transcended. In Christianity, God is seen as the transcendent, but in Continental philosophy of religion the concept of God is increasingly being replaced by terms such as the Absolute, Mystery, the Other, the other as other or alterity. Transcendence as a concept – in both religion and philosophy – normally fulfils a robust normative and directive role. “The end of transcendence” therefore holds far-reaching consequences and for this reason the philosopher Wessel Stoker, for example, tries to reconceptualise transcendence in his heuristic typology of transcendence. This typology also indicates the shift in the meaning of the concept of transcendence.

Transcendence is first of all typified as “radical transcendence”. This is a “vertical” type of transcendence where the absolute (God) is (1) seen as the totally other, and (2) clearly distinguished from the mundane reality. This type of transcendence becomes problematic if all value of the world is linked merely to the divine, since there is a danger that nihilism may arise should the possibility of the transcendent be questioned. In philosophy this type of questioning is especially prevalent in the onto-theological critique of metaphysics.

Stoker also identifies a concept of transcendence called “immanent transcendence”, which also falls under his critique of transcendence. Immanent transcendence places emphasis on the notion that one can experience the absolute/divine through mundane reality. Despite the emphasis on the immanent, here, radical transcendence remains evident. In the light of this the concept remains open to the same critique as radical transcendence.

One can also critique the concept of transcendence as immanent transcendence through the notion of immanence itself. Merold Westphal (2012:154), for example, states that immanence is the privileged term in immanent transcendence, which results in pantheism rather than theism.

The radicalisation of immanence can also be understood as a type of transcendence, namely as “radical immanence”. This transcendence is seen as the default position in contemporary culture (Van der Merwe 2012:509). In radical immanence the absolute is not sought outside the mundane reality; it is rather the case that both realities flow into the immanent (e.g. Deleuze’s plane of immanence). That one can still speak of transcendence in reference to immanence shows that the immanent self obtains a normative and/or divine character. Although transcendence of the outside world is discarded here, radical immanence ironically functions again as a transcendent ideal or norm. The critical question is from which position radical immanence can be judged as the normative or ideal.

Stoker presents an alternative view of transcendence as “alterity” that primarily seeks to retain something of the metaphysical and existential nature of transcendence. Transcendence as alterity gravitates back towards radical transcendence and builds further upon it, by emphasising the ineffability of the “Other”. It differs from radical transcendence since it rejects the notion of transcendence and immanence as opposing concepts. Instead, one should think beyond this opposition and acknowledge the “totally other” that is in “every other” (Levinas and Derrida). However, this mediation of transcendence as alterity is problematic since, on the one hand, it leads to radical transcendence, and on the other hand it degenerates into radical immanence.

In philosophy and theology, earlier understandings of transcendence were conceived of in a radical and vertical way, but more recent understandings are marked by a shift in meaning towards horizontal and radical immanence in Continental philosophy of religion. My question is whether the concept of transcendence is not losing the impact and meaning as regards the “crossing of boundaries”. Do we not eventually have a contradiction in terms here? These questions escalate in importance when one reviews the recent developments in Continental philosophy of religion.

These developments, and the question of transcendence within them, can be easily seen in the recent publication The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion (2014). The first part of the book focuses on the “Messianic” as derived from Derrida’s deconstruction. The messianic in this context concerns the “form of any promise of something to come” (Caputo 1997:117–8) and it stands in contrast to determined content of specific messianic religions. The possibility of faith lies in the “passion of non-savoir [not knowing], impassioning the desire for the impossible and the unforeseeable” (Caputo 1997:312). It is thus a “religion without religion”, a messianic expectation without a messiah, a non-supernatural expectation and mostly materialistic. Transcendence within this messianic view cannot be accommodated as radical or vertical. This “postmodern theology” does allow for religious discourse (religion without religion), but then only within radical immanence and materialism. The space for theology (or God-talk) in this context is one of “theopoetics” – “a poetics of what stirs within the name of God, within what ‘we’ call ‘God’. Since these quasi-phenomenological forms of theopoetics never reach the stasis of a fundamental Absolute reality, one must acknowledge that religion is Vorstellungen all the way down!” (Caputo 2014:52). The transcendent is, in other words, found on a horizontal level within language, text, and on the boundaries of space-time, but not in the metaphysical sense thereof.

A second development, the theme of liberation, occupies the second part of the book. The focus here is on the ethical potential and practices of Continental philosophy of religion. In this context, Philip Goodchild’s work is discussed due to his emphasis on the “extraordinary transformation and emancipation” potential of Continental philosophy of religion. Continental philosophy of religion obtains a new task, namely one of immanent critical theology. This “theology” takes its lead from the contemporary world as presently lived and not from traditional faith communities or theological thinking. Goodchild’s critique on capitalism is a specific example cited by the book’s contributors. Notice that the “theology” to which this version of Continental philosophy of religion is reformed is an immanent theology in which transcendence as radical or vertical is rejected. Within this understanding of Continental philosophy of religion, immanent transcendence and transcendence as alterity can hardly find a space to exist. The only space for transcendence is within the parameters of radical immanence.

The third and final part of the text focuses on Catherine Malabou’s concept of plasticity. Malabou deconstructs the presumed linearity of time and space and, within this deconstruction, inquires whether the future of Continental philosophy of religion (or of transcendence, as the focus of this article) is a question about the concepts of time and future themselves. The future is not, for her, the unknown or the unknowable, but rather the malleable and transformable. It is not only possible to figure the future (à-venir), but it is always already figured and refigured. This type of continuous reciprocity of time fits into the double meaning she ascribes to plasticity – to be capable of receiving and giving form. This type of plasticity is found par excellence in the human brain, hence why Malabou derives this concept from neuroplasticity.

With Malabou’s focus on plasticity she moves to the functioning of a biological system and thereby enters the world of untainted materiality. In doing so, Malabou rejects a messianic (unknown and unknowable) understanding of time and proposes a dialectic understanding of time. This dialectic develops because the plasticity of the transcendental (Kant) is, on the one hand, historical (in that the truth is nothing outside the genealogical composition thereof) and, on the other hand, biological (in as far as we must keep the natural character of the creative power of reason in mind). In this dialectic position, humans are themselves responsible for the forming of their rational products, convictions and values (like transcendence and time), while knowing that all of this is deconstructable. Therefore transcendence is just another concept, conviction, or value (like time) that is part of the plasticity of the human brain and thus is malleable, transformable and deconstructable. Transcendence is possible only as radical immanence which is radically situated within the biological (and in the philosophical new materialism). There is no outside, no “transcendence, breaches, or holes”, as Malabou postulates.

Other approaches to the conceptualisation of transcendence in Continental philosophy of religion are not necessarily committed to rehabilitating transcendence as “power, an argument without recourse, an authority beyond reason, the tyranny of the most excellent, … a totalitarian deity”. This point of departure is supported by various French phenomenologists who prefer to see transcendence as “the ground of humility: epistemological, ethical, aesthetic, and political” (Schwartz 2004:vii). In this regard the heightened interest towards transcendence is an outcome of postmodern thinking devoid of the plea for a return or recovery of previous figures of transcendence.

Given the normative and directional role of the concept of transcendence, it becomes hardly conceivable that the concept could disappear. Transcendence, or at least the search for it, is deeply embedded in human existence – whether biological, spiritual or both – and for this reason transcendence is continually being understood and interpreted anew. Within the Continental philosophy of religion, transcendence is being reflected upon with renewed, creative and fruitful interest. In the light of this it is difficult to accept that we have reached the end of transcendence in Continental philosophy of religion.

Keywords: Continental philosophy, Continental philosophy of religion, immanence, philosophy of religion, theology, transcendence

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die einde van transendensie in Kontinentale godsdiensfilosofie?

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