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Simpson, Christopher Ben
Merleau-Ponty and Theology.
London u. a.: Bloomsbury T & T Clark 2014. 272 S. = Philosophy and Theology. Kart. US$ 27,95. ISBN 978-0-567-21767-7.
Johanne Stubbe Teglbjærg Kristensen
The writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty have attracted renewed attention in recent years from scholars from a wide range of dis-ciplines with very different backgrounds and views. Consequently, the thoughts of Merleau-Ponty has had a considerable influence on the contemporary debate about a number of philosophical and theological issues, including on the relationship between naturalism and transcendentalism, between ontology and phenomenol-ogy, between notions of body and mind, and between the notion of the body and of embodiment.
In light of this, Christopher Ben Simpson’s book about Merleau-Ponty and theology is a welcome addition. One can wonder why not much has been explicitly written about Merleau-Ponty’s relation to theology by either philosophers or by theologians; S.’s book has even been called the first book length study to bring theology into conversation with Merleau-Ponty’s thought. In this regard, S.’s book bears witness to the fact that it is quite complicated to write about Merleau-Ponty’s concrete philosophy in relation to a theol-ogy that is often thought of in abstract terms, and even more so if one wants, as S. does, to bring the two into actual conversation with one another.
S., who is an Associate Professor in Philosophical Theology at Lincoln University, and has also studied at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, suggests that Merleau-Ponty has been set aside to go quickly on the way to the wilds of post-structuralism, and that his philosophy bears »a deep resonance with some of the definitive teachings of the Christian faith and so has a largely untapped potential for helping theologians think through some of these central affirmations« (IX). In order to tap this potential, he has composed his book in two major parts. The first is about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (1–84) and the second about Merleau-Ponty and theol-ogy (85–154). The last pages consist of notes (155–239) and indexes (241–258). As a result, there is no introduction to the book or to S.’s method or approach as such, as well as no conclusion. This is striking with regard to the deeply controversial state of the fields treated and implied in the book. Both parts of the book are written as fully separate parts, and one can read the first without the last and the last without the first, since the major insights from the first part of the book are summarized in the last.
In the first part of the book, S. introduces Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy by way of a brief, mainly biographical and historical introduction followed by three chapters on: 2. The corporeal and the corporal, 3. The human I: Body and World and 4. The human II: The corporate (others, language, history). Distinctive to the introduc-tion is the lack of reference (i. e. except in the biographical introduction) to other literature on Merleau-Ponty, as well as a lack of any remarks on S.’s own position with regard to the controversial issues in contemporary Merleau-Ponty scholarship, e. g. the issue of continuity in Merleau-Ponty’s writings, his stand in regard to naturalism or the question of the relation between phenomenol-ogy and ontology. S. presents Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy as a single piece of coherent work that basically addresses three dimen-sions, namely the dimension of nature, of the human and of the spirit. S.’s take on Merleau-Ponty is therefore expressed in his sys-tematization of these dimensions. Each dimension is accordingly unfolded by compiling a number of Merleau-Ponty quotes related to each dimension. For this reason, S.’s text is packed with quotes and does in a way present Merleau-Ponty in his own words. Yet, the systematic approach is S.’s own, and one wonders whether this rather abstract approach to Merleau-Ponty, in which S. places himself beside the dimensions instead of in them, succeeds in presenting his philosophy. One of the consequences seems to be that the reflections and descriptions of concrete experiences that are known to be the primary driver in Merleau-Ponty’s writings seem to disappear out of sight. Reading S., one gets the impression that Merleau-Ponty solved the problem of dualism – in abstract, intellec-tual terms (45–46) – instead of a description of how the problem of dualism marks all of Merleau-Ponty’s writings as a problem, and not how to solve the problem intellectually, but of how to live with it adequately. It seems clear that the abstract approach to Merleau-Ponty has some attraction – he seems easier to understand and re-late to theology this way – but the question is whether it is actually the recognized importance of Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts that is understood and communicated, i. e. his descriptions of and insights into incarnated existence.
This characteristic of the first part of the book has consequences for the second. As with the first part, the second part of the book consists of four chapters, an introduction: 5. Merleau-Ponty and theology and an elaboration of Merleau-Ponty and theology with regard to the three dimensions, 6. Theology and the material, 7.Theology and the living and 8. Theology and the human. These final three chapters present the conversation between Merleau-Ponty and theology that is the aim of the book. Characteristic of these chapters is the same lack of reference to other works on Merleau-Ponty and theology, or on phenomenology and theology, in addition to the lack of a deeper reflection on theological approach. In Chapter 5, S. writes that he will present a theological appropriation of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, which is confessional in the sense of working from the perspective of faith (91). Faith is defined as having to do with the »unseen« and with that »which is not discoverable by rational inquiry alone« (92). For S., this means that reason follows faith, yet a faith defined in this traditional and rather abstract way. S. writes that it is fundamental for theology to accept revealed truths, but does not explicitly thematize the issue of re-velation as an issue pertaining to the appropriation of Merleau-Ponty (92). Instead, in the three main chapters he presents summaries of the theology of the Fathers of the Early Church (in particular Athanasius, Augustine, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus) on classical topics (God, creation, incarnation, church, etc.), and refers their theology to Merleau-Ponty by noticing what they ge-nerally have in common. Just as S. is not focused on the differences between the different theologies he summarizes, he is not con-cerned with their differences in regard to the thoughts of Merleau-Ponty. In this context, it is a real contribution of the book that it moves very close to Merleau-Ponty’s words, clearly showing that Merleau-Ponty was truly concerned with theology and Christian-ity, and that a theology that wants to take its own incarnational and mediated character seriously can gain from studying his writings.