The Mystery of Erich Przywara’s use of Rhythm: Further Thoughts to the Syndicate Symposium

I have been pretty quiet over here for the past month or so because I have been engaged in a symposium over at Syndicate Theology on Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis. Przywara is a twentieth-century German Jesuit theologian who is, up until now at least, rarely engaged by the English-speaking theology world for a constellation of reasons. One of those reasons is that he had simply never been translated into English until David Bentley Hart and John Betz took on the task of doing so and completed their translation in 2014.

But the reasons why he had not been translated until now are various. For one thing, Przywara was Karl Barth’s primary Catholic interlocutor and Barth employed some dismissive rhetoric against him. His famous statement, that the analogia entis is the invention of the anti-Christ, for example, was in large part a response to dialogues with Przywara on the subject. Since Barth’s posthumous reputation grew so disproportionately to that of German Catholic theologians the English-speaking world, his invective may have closed the matter in the mind of Anglo-theology and made Przywara seem an unnecessary figure for the English world to engage.

Part of the reason, however, may also be Przywara himself. His style is very dense, assumes a certain familiarity with fields and figures that the reader may not share, and is not always very linear or systematic. The connections between points can sometimes be difficult to simply read off the face of the text. This sort of prose is sometimes held against thinkers (Kant seems to be a perennial example) but it seems to me that it is often the case that difficult text involves an attempt to think new possibilities for which there may not yet be adequate language and it is for this reason that sitting with these difficult texts can be immensely rewarding in opening up new possibilities. As such, after theology had sat with Przywara for a while, the English-speaking world finally started to take notice, particularly first with a collection of essays entitled Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or Wisdom of God? in 2010 which engaged Przywara significantly, and, it seems to me, all but called out for a translation.

Regardless, Przywara is especially dear to me since, before I even got involved in the conversation surrounding the analogy of being (and I am in a very curious position in this respect as a Protestant who defends Przywara’s analogy of being, though not necessarily all instantiations of the doctrine), he manifested to me as one of the few theologians who fairly consistently uses the category of rhythm.

He seems to use rhythm in his attempt to use the doctrine of analogy to think about reality in a way at once faithful to the Christian tradition and different than had been done before. Rhythm is a way for him to articulate analogy in a way that is different than it had been articulated previously. He does not, however, do much analysis of the term or make any attempt to explain what he means by it. This may be because he thinks it is self-explanatory but this is far from the case. The thinkers that had used it before him include Augustine as well as philosophers like Nietzsche, Bergson, Hegel, and Heidegger. He is familiar with all of these thinkers but at no point explicitly associates the category with any one of them. This is curious since it is used to mean very different things by Augustine and by the modern continental philosophers.

One might assume that he intends to use the term in an Augustinian sense since his metaphysics is arguably more closely associated with that of Augustine, though it also engages the philosophers of his time. However, it is certainly not a straightforward correlation. Augustine uses the category principally to suggest a kind of vertical system of resonating ratios according to which the various layers of reality are held together. Przywara appears to employ the term much more broadly to talk about intersecting oscillations of many kinds, vertical and horizontal. These oscillations (or “rhythmizations”)  are metaphysical, but also noetic and religious, and rhythm is sometimes an intersection between these categories.

As such, I have been inclined to think that Przywara’s use of the idea is not a simple recycling of someone else’s understanding of the term but precisely a category that is associated with what is new in Przywara, what is different in his understanding of analogy. Moreover, at several points, Przywara points to something mysterious about his understanding of his analogy. He works out the contours of analogy rigorously but then also finally admits an “unsystematizable surd” or an “analogy of silence” relativizes any systematizations of his work that might be attempted. His use of rhythm, this slightly nebulous category that is utterly familiar to us because we are all embedded in it yet escapes our attempts to systematize it, is precisely bound up with his attempt to articulate analogy as the inescapable form of our existence without absolutely pinning it down.

The conversation that I am a part of over at Syndicate has taken a turn to aesthetics, in particular to understanding the way in which Przywara has influenced the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I think that it is not insignificant that Przywara has chosen a category largely associated with aesthetics as one of the frameworks according to which he thinks analogy and I wonder about the degree to which this opened up the possibility for Balthasar’s association between aesthetics and metaphysics.

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