I am nearing the conclusion of my holiday outside Black Mountain, North Carolina. It has rained hard each day for most of each day, thus interrupting our plans and walks, yet the rain also brings out the best of the mountains, as my friend Steve Freeman observes. The sound of the rain on the roof is delightful, and the nearby brook babbles even more brightly.
Of the several books that I brought with me, the one with which I have spent most of my time is Is There a Sabbath for Thought? by William Desmond. I have wanted to read Desmond since Brian Moore introduced him to the readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy a few years ago. I have read and reread his thirty-two page Introduction and quickly skimmed the rest of the book. It did not take me long to confirm what I already knew—Desmond is a genuine philosopher. He is an expert in Hegel, but is no Hegelian. He has read widely and deeply in the tradition. He names Plato, Augustine, Hegel, Neitzsche as the principal thinkers who shadow him; but also Shakespeare, Dostoevski, Pascal, and Shestov. “Deeper than these,” he continues, “I have wondered at the poverty of philosophy when it faces figures like Jesus or Francis of Assisi, or the Buddha. Do we here meet the wisdom of the simple—the idiot wisdom that keeps intimacy with the porosity of being and lets itself be a passage or passing of communication from the divine?” (p. 19).
Desmond was raised an Irish Catholic, and I believe, though I’m not certain, that he remains a practicing Catholic; but in this book he wears his faith lightly. He wishes to explore the middle space between religion and philosophy, with particular concern for modern philosophy’s loss of divine Transcendence. This exploration requires that he existentially inhabit the “being between” and cultivate a “metaxological sense of being,” thus imposing a kind of ascesis. The philosopher, says Desmond, must allow himself to be “lifted up into a new dimension of desire and longing—longing for a knowing that is not an objective or determinate cognition, nor a matter of self-determining self-knowing, but other again. It is more than determinate cognition and more than self-knowledge. This is a poverty of philosophy in which it empties itself of its conceptual hubris and seeks out the guidance of the great poets and religious figures, those touched by the exceeding simplicity of the holy, as if by an idiot wisdom. … It is thinking struggling in the dimension of the hyperbolic” (p. 20). Thought moving beyond itself.
Desmond is difficult. He speaks of primal porosity, equivocal being, univocal being, hyperbolic being, the passio essendi and conatus essendi, the urgency of ultimacy, the intimate universal and agapeic origin. These expressions are unfamiliar to me. I can guess at their meaning; but clearly I will need to work hard if I’m to achieve any measure of clarity.
Already I find myself pulled into Desmond’s writing:
I would now give more weight to what I call the passio essendi. “Urgency of ultimacy” can be taken too much as our urge: our will to be in relation to the ultimate. This is not wrong, but there is something more primal at the root of this urgency of ultimacy. Before the conatus essendi, the passio essendi: before the seeking in which we are put in question and put ourselves at risk, there is a porosity of being which is always already presupposed by all our acts of self-transcending. The primal porosity of being, I believe, is most intimately expressed in our being religious. Being religious is the primal porosity of being, since it is the living middle between the soul in its most abyssal intimacy and the divine. (p. 23).
If religion has to do with our primal porosity—which is prior even to our self-transcendending, be it in science, or art, or philosophy, or everyday practice—then it makes sense that mystery, ambiguity, and enigma should be essential to it, positively essential and not as mere defects of univocity. (p. 25)
This is not my idiom, but if I am understanding Desmond rightly, I wholeheartedly assent. This is not “natural theology,” which has long struck me as artificial, as if philosophical reflection can exclude the fundamental apprehension of Transcendence that lies at the heart of our common humanity. Perhaps we might call it fundamental theology, thought indwelling the complexities, “promiscuous ambiguity,” and pathos of existence. How mindlessly we quote our Scriptures and ecclesial dogmas: both are essential to Christian faith, yet each can become a monstrous idol when divorced from the Mystery who has brought them into being. Finesse is necessary.
We must learn to inhabit the in-between.