It’s a standard trope – a cliché, even – for someone in my position tonight to talk about ‘being honoured’, etc. But – cliché or not - it really is an enormous privilege to be involved in the launch this book – a book which, however impressive in itself, needs to be located in the context of the wider, and astonishing, intellectual adventure that Joseph O’Leary has undertaken over the past four decades. To try to sketch something of this context, and thus to give some measure of the achievement of this book, let me set out a few rough co-ordinates…
Today, I’d say, it’s pretty much de rigueur for so many ‘Continental’ philosophers (more specifically, those formed in and by phenomenology and deconstruction) to stride boldly, sometimes recklessly, into theological territory; and, correlatively, so many theologians today seem at ease with the most tricky issues in Heidegger or Levinas (not to mention Žižiek and Badiou). In fact, there’s a whole industry that has emerged in the last 15 years or so, based around what’s termed the ‘theological turn’ in French philosophy.
But of course it was not always thus. What’s become commonplace today presupposes all kinds of brave and radical intellectual labour of a generation ago, work that shaped today’s terrain. Jean-Luc Marion (who, incidentally, has a certain association with the Mater Dei Institute) is probably the best known figure, in this respect, and his work has probably received most attention. Chrétien, Henry, Falque, Lacoste, and various others, would all feature on the roll-call, too. I think we should also consider Joseph O’Leary to be one of the central figures, or protagonists, in helping to establish this ‘confluence’ of Continental philosophy and theological concern: his effort has been far more than that of commentator or observer.
Consider the background… Joe is at Maynooth, working on Augustine for his doctoral studies, but then spends two years in Paris, at the end of the 1970s, where he soaks up so many vital currents in French thought, and becomes directly acquainted with important figures in French intellectual life. More particularly, Joe came to realize that thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida could provide rich resources for approaching the great canonical Christian figures and texts: the point was never ‘being fashionable’; rather, there was a profound grappling with how ‘deconstruction’ (broadly construed) might allow us to strip away layers of stifling orthodoxy (and the worst sort of reverential scholasticism), and instead to encounter the life in, say, Augustine’s texts – their brilliance and originality, but also their tensions and elisions, their ‘unsaid’ blind-spots, their questionable metaphysical assumptions as well as their epoch-forming achievements.
One important manifestation of this ‘confluence’ of Continental philosophy and theological concern was the colloquium that Joe and Richard Kearney jointly organised in Paris, in 1979, on ‘Heidegger and the Question of God’; I think we can now see this as a catalytic moment in the very formation of the so-called ‘theological turn’ in Continental philosophy. However, it’s in 1985 that the fruits of Joe’s earlier labours become most evident, in his Questioning Back (the first part of the trilogy that’s now complete). It’s a pioneering text, and one that still fizzes with intellectual energy and brio. But it’s both radical and faith-full: it confronts Augustine with ‘deconstruction’, but it also confronts deconstruction with Augustine. This was new, and exciting work – yet, typically, it was always deeply rooted, philosophically and spiritually. (And it’s a book crying out for a second edition, I’d also say.)
This central status, in terms of the formation and establishment of what we can term ‘Continental philosophy of religion’, is obviously an important enough achievement in itself: as I’ve said, Joe’s work is itself formative – primary and not ‘secondary’. But, of course, this is far from the full story. By the time Questioning Back was published, Joe had moved to Japan, to take up a lecturing post. (He’s been there since.) And this change of ‘element’ in turn begins the remarkable dialogue with Eastern thought – particularly Buddhism – that Joe has pursued ever since.
The first manifestation of this expansion of an already expansive intellectual trajectory came in the second book in Joe’s trilogy, Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth (1996). This book continued the project of trying to retrieve the living phenomena of Christian tradition and Christian living, but it also began to think of religion overall as being in some sense essentially incomplete, open-ended, provisional; in turn, Joe argued, Christianity shouldn’t be either triumphalist or defensive regarding other religious expression, but should see how it could only gain from open, critical, dialogue with different traditions. (Roughly speaking, Joe’s claim is that Christianity can only be enriched by confronting how all religions are ‘situated’, and are always partial attempts at articulating something ‘ultimate’.)
It seems that, now, with Conventional and Ultimate Truth we have a kind of ‘consummation’ of this project that has been taking shape and gathering pace over 40 years. In other words, there are established themes, like the engagement with Buddhism and eastern thought, the phenomenological sensibility, and the deep historical immersion in patristics and Scripture. But now, it seems, these are all ‘honed’ and brought to a kind of completion.
(I’m wary of talking about anything finished or ‘total’ here - Joe’s work overall is an ongoing warning against such presumptions - but I’d still say that we can see a certain synthesis at work, as if earlier thoughts and themes have been enriched and taken forward.)
Trying to summarize such a rich & multiform text is pretty much an impossibility. But, roughly speaking, the book suggests that the Buddhist notion of ‘conventional truth’ can enhance (rather than undermine) theological judgement, by stressing the provisional and fragile nature of religious discourse. Meanwhile, its counterpart – ‘ultimate truth’ – might help us avoid the casual, facile postmodernism of ‘anything goes’: religious claims may be limited and contingent expressions, but they are nonetheless fundamentally important attempts at articulating ultimacy, rather than just empty signifiers. (Non-Christian thinking isn’t merely a tokenistic issue here, we should notice: the basic principles of the book are ‘Eastern’, as it were. Joe enthusiastically backs David Tracy’s injunction that the ‘inter-religious’ should be at the very centre of theology, not just at its periphery.)
With these principles as guides, the book undertakes a range of readings that are quite astonishing in their breadth: meditations on, for example, Scripture, on Hegelian dialectic, negative theology, religious experience, on contemporary phenomenology, on the centrality of inter-religious dialogue, and – not least – on the significance of modernist literature as another type of ‘quest for ultimacy’. (Joe is as at home with Joyce and Proust as he is with Plotinus & Heidegger: his main teaching, we should recall, has been in the field of European literature.)
As we can see, then, the sweep is enormous; but this very range is crucial to – or rather ‘is’ - the book’s core thesis: namely, that human beings’ “intimations of ultimacy” must be appreciated in the broadest possible sense. What we ‘do’, across the broadest range, is forever ‘falling short’, forever subject to critical reappraisal and even deconstruction. But this isn’t ‘therefore’ confirmation of some nihilism: this ongoing effort of aiming-for yet never-quite-grasping (or articulating) ultimacy itself is, as Joe puts it, the “hallmark of the activity of spirit (or Spirit) in the world of history, the flesh, the letter.”
In other words: the book (and Joe’s wider project) doesn’t just ‘call for’ or ‘encourage’ a kind of critical pluralism: it enacts this. It is, I’d say, a remarkable achievement, and one that provides an example for all sorts of intellectual endeavour – theological or otherwise.
Let me finish by citing Joe O’Leary himself – not this wonderful new book, but an appreciation that Joe published, about a decade ago, of the great Passionist philosopher and theologian, Stanislas Breton. I can’t help reading a certain (unconscious) self-portrait in Joe’s depiction of his revered friend; and with this in mind, let me quote Joe on Breton, and suggest that this encapsulates what we can learn from Joseph O’Leary himself:
“Dogmatic claims serve only as a hedge around the authenticity of the event of Christian living. When they become banners of identity the dynamics of aggressive narcissism come into play, as each fights the others in the name of a claim to possess the one true knowledge of the foundations of the universe. The great religions are revolutions of vision, not definitive deliveries of the ultimate nature of being. When lived, the visions grow, meet and correct one another in dialogue. When erected into impregnable identities, the visions wilt, and when they meet it is to murder one another.”
This event today marks a singular academic achievement: the publication of Joe’s latest text. But as this quotation illustrates, the significance of Joe’s achievement is not “merely academic”: the kind of critical, historically-informed pluralism that Joe urges, and indeed lives, offers the possibility of – citing Joe again – a “civilized, tolerant, imaginative and reflective conversation, so that religious ideas become again a blessing rather than a bane to mankind”.