Trauma and the Saturated Phenomenon: Distinguishing Interruption from Rupture

I recently read Tamsin Jones’ article on the parallels between the disruption of the subject in “postmodern,” specifically phenomenological, approaches to religion and the disruption of the subject in trauma. She draws compelling parallels between the ways in which Immanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion talk about the self’s encounter with the invisible, unbearable, absolute, irregardable Other (which Marion calls the saturated phenomenon) and the ways in which trauma theory talks about the self’s encounter with the traumatic event. The parallel is particularly disturbing since thinkers like Marion associate the saturated phenomenon with the divine.

This caught my attention because I have noticed myself having to make a differentiation in my own work between something like what Jones identifies from a more positive kind of interruption. We both seem to share a conviction that the “ethics of alterity” is a good and necessary move in philosophy and religion as well as an awareness of the ways in which this can nevertheless slip into violence. I wish I’d had the language of trauma and Jones as conversation partner earlier, as I was writing my book but in lieu of that, this is my attempt to bring her work into the conversation.  Continue reading “Trauma and the Saturated Phenomenon: Distinguishing Interruption from Rupture”


Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm

My colleague and I had the pleasure this week of taking some students to hear Marilynne Robinson and Rowan Williams speak at the Wheaton Theology Conference. The two of them (as well as the presentation by Tiffany Kreiner in particular) gave beautiful and inspiring presentations which will take me some time to digest, but I was particularly struck by the fact that Rowan Williams referred to rhythm a couple of times in his formal conversation with Robinson.

As far as I know, Williams does not treat the subject of rhythm in any of his books in any direct way or in any detail, although it has been very difficult for me to keep up with his publishing speed lately (if somebody knows of a place in his corpus where he does deal with rhythm, please let me know!). Nevertheless, he made rhythm a central dimension of his response to two different questions: Continue reading “Speculations about Rowan Williams’ Recent References to Rhythm”

Does Rhythm have a Metaphysical Ground?

Quite a while back now someone asked me a really good question that I wonder about sometimes. It just occurred to me that this might be the sort of thing that is interesting to more people. The question is something like this: “Is there a more transcendent rhythm than the rhythm of creation that grounds it in some way? Is it tied to some metaphysical scheme?” Here’s where I stand on that question at this point:

Continue reading “Does Rhythm have a Metaphysical Ground?”

New Rhythmic Questions for 2018

It has been a long time since I have written. The reasons, however, are directly related to this project of rhythmic theology on which I have embarked. I am in the middle of making some decisions about my professional future and this has taken up large quantities of my capacities of imagination. In the midst of that, however, I have also been developing the next iteration of this rhythmic theology project. Continue reading “New Rhythmic Questions for 2018”

What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?

In the churches of which I have been a part – the Protestant, free-church, evangelical variety with little formal liturgy – form is often treated as irrelevant. This attitude typically appears when someone has a complaint related to music, and the approach that leadership takes to such complaints is often to simply suggest that they should not be made at all. What matters is doctrine and beyond doctrine what matters is relationship, community, and unity. Issues of form are matters of preference only and are therefore debates into which only the “immature” enter. Arguments over form are not arguments over doctrine and are therefore mere threats to unity. We should therefore strive not to critique or enter into conversations about form at all. Certainly not everyone feels this way and I don’t know that everyone who gets frustrated with such arguments would express it in this way, but I frequently hear a variation of “there are more important things to talk about” in response to such critiques. Continue reading “What are congregants really doing when they complain about church music?”

A Reflection on Vision (for while I’m away)

I am currently in Vietnam visiting family and focusing all my attention on getting to know that culture, not on writing blog posts. In my absence, however, Transpositions, the blog associated with the University of Saint Andrews program in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, has published an article that I wrote for them on Jackson Pollock and Gregory of Nyssa called “God’s Back: Jackson Pollock and the Beatific Vision.”

The article engages one of my favourite words: “vision.” I’m interested in the word because it can mean both something that one sees (you are a vision of loveliness) and the capacity to see (I wear glasses because my vision is poor). One word captures both that which is received and the act of receiving. It therefore seems to suggest a connection between those two aspects – what is seen and the act of seeing. And so a question emerges: Are there different types of visions (the capacity) appropriate to different types of visions (the seen)? Can that which is visually received in some way shape or change the act of seeing itself?

Certain artists and theologians seem to say “yes.”



Image: By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Lenten Caesura: The silence of this blog for the next 40 days

The rhythm of a poem frequently includes a device known as a caesura: a mid-line pause indicated by a punctuation mark that breaks up a line-unit. On the one hand, the caesura is experienced as an interruption to an established rhythmic flow or pattern. The caesura intrudes upon the momentum towards completion, slowing the forward-momentum of the poem. It stops the reader suddenly, creating a feeling of coming up short.

On the other hand, however, the caesura also facilitates the perception of the rhythm by forcing “the line to reassert itself in the listener’s perception.” (Tsur, Poetic Rhythm, 113, 15.) The caesuric interruption breaks up the semantic content into two more manageable chunks, making the musicality of the line, its rhythm and pattern rather than only its semantic content, more available to the reader’s consciousness. Giorgio Agamben therefore compares the caesura to a situation in which a rider has fallen asleep on a horse. When the horse suddenly stops, the rider becomes aware of that which carriers her, that of which she was previously unaware (The Idea of Prose). The caesuric interruption makes one suddenly aware of the rhythm which was previously carrying one but had slipped into the background. The reader is then responsible for maintain the pattern in the face of this event, of accommodating the rhythm to the event such that it deepens and complexifies, but does not break. If the rhythm of a poem is to become complete, such complexification is necessary and this is largely accomplished through moments that disrupt the pattern begun at the outset.

The season of Lent is caesuric. It is an interruption, of one sort of another, to the daily routine of ordinary time. It is intended to “throw us off” in some way, destabilizing our typical habits of reliance and thereby forcing us to confront the fragility of the creaturely rhythms of eating, sleeping, working, communicating on which existence is carried. It is not necessarily a matter of breaking these rhythms as one would break a bad habit. These creaturely rhythms are good. But we are often unaware of them, eager as we are to set our minds on things that remind us less of our fragility, and as such we do not always perform them very well. So Lent is a caesura in that it requires us to notice these patterns by disrupting them and as such invites us to continue these rhythms in ways that are deeper, more complex, and more attentive.

The rhythms of the contemporary West, and consequently of my own space-time, are in large part determined by the rhythms of electronic and web media – social and otherwise – the rhythms of checking-and-rechecking, scrolling, of thinking and communicating in short bursts, of the background noises that govern electronic media. These shape the rhythms of the day more than many of us realize, and as such, my Lent this year is a caesura of the rhythms of those electronic media, so that I might return to performing them in ways that are deeper and more aware.

As such, this blog and all my other online presences will be silent for the next 40 days. I look forward to this creative interruption and wish you a likewise caesuric Lent.




The Poetic Shape of the Doctrine of Recapitulation

Christianity, when viewed in terms of its form or shape, is essentially made up of lines and circles. On the one hand, it includes narrative, a kind of intra-historical line from Abraham to slightly after Christ. Genealogical lines are drawn, geographical lines from point A to point B can be mapped and are considered religiously significant. Jurgen Moltmann argues that Judaism was the first historical religion in that it is based on events in space and time rather than cosmological cycles. David Abram argues something similar on account of the Hebrew development of non-pictographic writing, which lends itself to a linear way of thinking. For Moltmann this is a virtue, for Abram it is not, but both think that this linear, historical impulse became as much a part of Christianity as Judaism.

On the other hand, Christianity also includes a significant circular dimension that is often overlooked in attempts to identify Judeo-Christian distinctiveness as a virtue or an ill. The historical lines are almost never significant as lines, but only gain their significance by being bent into circles. Perhaps the most fundamental of such circles is Irenaeus of Lyon’s doctrine of recapitulation. Continue reading “The Poetic Shape of the Doctrine of Recapitulation”

Windows and Wormholes: A Theological Assessment of the Images Used to Talk about Religious Art

This past week, I was honored to participate in a panel responding to an exhibition at IWU that paired the traditional icons by the local icon writer Brian Matthew Whirledge with contemporary installation work by Jer Nelsen. Both think of their work as inviting viewers into an encounter with or contemplation of a reality beyond the physical, using the metaphors “windows” and “wormholes” to express this relationship. I here give my theological response to these descriptions: Continue reading “Windows and Wormholes: A Theological Assessment of the Images Used to Talk about Religious Art”

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. Continue reading “The Mystery of Erich Przywara’s use of Rhythm: Further Thoughts to the Syndicate Symposium”