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Finitude and Theological Anthropo-logy. An Interdisciplinary Exploration Into Theological Dimensions of Finitude.
Leuven/Paris/Walpole: Peeters 2011. XXI, 220 S. 23,9 x 16,0 cm = Studies in Philosophical Theology, 47. Kart. EUR 48,00. ISBN 978-90-429-2458-1.
Mads Peter Karlsen
In recent times the issue of human finitude has predominantly been a predilection of materialists and atheists. And one could indeed ask: Is not modern man’s acknowledgment of the sole finite character of his or hers existence the very result and acceptance of the death of God? The modern individual knows very well that he has no immortal soul. But what if, however, the very feature (fi-nitude) that is supposed to testify to God’s absence is instead the actual precondition for and the most penetrating expression of religious experience? To make this wager is one of two mains objectives that Jan-Olav Henriksen sets out to achieve in his latest book; the other is to map out the multifaceted and evasive character of human finitude.
The book is divided into three main parts. In Part I H. examines finitude as it is experienced in different aspects of human existence such as the body, language, ethics, desire and death. Here he draws on phenomenological analyses in Merleau-Ponty, Ricœur, Lévinas, Marion and Heidegger aiming to benefit from and underscore the relevance of non-theological reflections on finitude in theological anthropology. His fundamental claim is that finitude should be understood as an ambiguous and complex notion with important implications for our understanding of both religion and the notion of God. Finitude cannot be reduced to an experience of mortality alone. To be sure, finitude does not merely designate an experience, but is likewise the possibility condition of other experiences; it offers not only an experience of limitedness and immanence, but also of transcendence; indeed an experience not just of self-transcendence, but also of an encounter with the transcendence of the other and not simply an inherent transcendence of the other as my fellow man, but also an exterior transcendence of the Other as God. Thus, the key-argument of Part I is that it is the actual limitations of man (his finitude) that grants him the chance to go beyond a limited, self-enclosed existence and relate to something other than himself.
However, as it becomes increasingly clear throughout the book, this openness of finitude is not something that comes about automatically; rather, it rests on the attitude you assume towards your finitude. The attitude human beings take towards their finitude differs. Some are willing to accept the finite character of their life, while others deny it. According to H., the different attitudes towards finitude, acceptance or denial, have crucial moral and religious consequences. Accepting your finitude means that you may become open towards the otherness of the other, including God, and thereby affirm the transcendent character of finite existence. Denying your finitude means that you will be unable to realize a true and sound life in real relationship with your neighbor as well as with God, thus enclosing yourself in your finite existence. According to H., a major task of religion is to make possible a realization of an affirmative attitude towards the human as well as divine other and thereby enabling the acceptance of the finite character of human existence. God is a significant symbolic locus for coming to terms with one’s own finitude, as he at one point puts it.
Part II, which is distinctively shorter than the other two parts of the book, elaborates on the issue of finitude and mortality intro-duced in Part I. Through a reading of Hans Jonas the ambivalence of finitude is further clarified by arguing that mortality is both a burden (because of its constant possibility) and a blessing (because of its necessity: it is the fact that our days are numbered which makes them count) to man. The remainder of Part II considers in detail the two aforementioned attitudes towards finitude and their different consequence through an outline of I. D. Yalom’s psychological reflection on death and critique of what is presented as Nietzsche’s denial of human interdependence and thus the dimension of otherness that finitude opens up to, resulting in a morally devious and existentially sterile form of »absolutized« finitude. According to H., Yalom provides a positive alternative in terms of his method of »disidentification« as a way of affirming one’s finitude.
In Part III, the implications of human finitude for our conception of religion and God are in focus, which makes it the most explicitly theological part of the book. Through a reading of amongst others Tillich and LeRon Shults, the book develops an idea of the infinite as the horizon against which finite human existence should be understood and realized (thus picking up on some of the levinasian themes introduced in Part I). Taking Tillich as the point of departure the question of the relation between the finite and the infinite is unfolded arguing that the meaning of the infinite only becomes accessible on the basis of the concrete experience of fini-tude as the negation of the finite. In relation to this, the claim is that religion is an expression of the finite being’s way of understanding its relation to infinite. However, as H.’s underscores, Tillich does not exactly identify God with the infinite. Rather, God is both finite and infinite showing himself in the finite. This point is further developed in a chapter on LeRon Shult. Near the end of Part III, H. considers the relationship between the finite and the infinite in terms of religious symbols, first of all the symbol of Imago Dei. Turning to Neville’s theory of religious symbols it is argued that religious symbols are themselves finite but that they symbolize the infinite. And the theological determination of man as Imago Dei is such a powerful symbol precisely because it expresses the fundamental insight that man as a finite being, if he accepts his finitude, is offered the chance of relating to infinite and thereby realizing his true existence.
There are many interesting observations and analyses in H.’s book. However, it also gives rise to a number of questions and criticisms. Let me just mention three. First, in my opinion, the accumulative strategy of the book supposing to gradually broaden the readers understanding of the subject by including more and more theoretical perspectives backfires. Instead of increasing clarity, I had the feeling of recurrently losing sight of the main argument while yet another thinker was introduced. Moreover one could also ask if this strategy does not downplay the rather significant conceptual differences and philosophical discords between thinkers as different as for instance Heidegger and Wentzel van Huyssteen. Second, it is never convincingly demonstrated that revoking scientific and empirical material (in Part II) as a supplement to phe-nomenology contributes to the argument as it is proposed in the book – perhaps because the scientific and empirical material presented is fairly limited. Furthermore it would have been beneficial with a more explicit justification as to why the work of Jonas and Yalom is considered »scientific« and »empirical« in contrast to thinkers presented in Part I of the book. Third, considering that the book confers a great deal of importance to, and relies heavily upon, recent phenomenology it seems strange that it not as much as mentions the important and influential discussion introduced by Dominique Janicaud of the (non)theological status of phenomenology.
There is no doubt that the issue of the relationship between finitude and religion is of major relevance for contemporary philosophy of religion and theology. Its weaknesses apart, H.’s book helps emphasize this and thus opens up avenues for further discussion. And as such, it is a useful book.