*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Ideas of the holy

by
13 July 2010

John Saxbee tackles phenomenology

iStock

Phenomenology and the Holy: Religious experience after Husserl
Espen Dahl
SCM Press £55
(978-0-334-04356-0)
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

MY HUNCH is that most of those reading this review are not fluent in phenomenology, and know little of Husserl’s work. The acid test of a book of this kind is whether, after reading it, you are any the wiser. That is a difficult one to call.

On the one hand, it contains all the information needed to make sense of this rather arcane branch of philosophical theology; on the other hand, this information is inter­twined with a web of interpretation, so that the wood and the trees are not easily distinguished. The fact that quotations from German sources are untranslated further limits its accessibility.

This book is part of the Veritas series emanating from the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. The Centre is active in promoting theo­logy and philosophy as inter-dependent disciplines, but few con­cessions are made to non-specialists. That is a shame, because the issues dealt with here really do matter, and deserve to be widely debated.

Espen Dahl has taught in the Faculty of Theology at the Univers­ity of Oslo, and he focuses first on Rudolph Otto, a pioneer pheno­m-eno­logist, whose The Idea of the Holy put an emphasis on “feelings” in the economy of religion which many have found attractive in modern times.

But Dahl challenges Otto’s radical separation of the holy from every­day things and people. He demon­strates that mystery interrupts the everyday rather than erupting from and beyond it. He postulates in dialogue with Marion and Levinas, but especially with Husserl, the no­tion of “contrast-harmony”, which allows the everyday to ac­commo­date both familiarity and otherness.

Once this principle is established, the way is clear to describing how things, people and events, and our experience of them, can be holy without either contaminating holi­ness with the base metal of the every­day, or imputing to the every­day a kind of holiness diluted by its ubiquity.

The project culminates in a chap­ter, “The Holy and Worship”, that addresses at a profound philosophical level the tension between the distinctive luminosity of, e.g., the holy eucharist, and what Arch­bishop Michael Ramsey caricatured as all and sundry offering all and sundry.

Here, continuity and discontin­uity with the everyday is held in tension as the sacramental power of the eucharist interrupts the every­day givenness of bread and wine to hallow them, while at the same time sacramentalising their everyday uses. This chapter will be of particu­lar interest to those attracted by Radical Orthodoxy, but it is of wider significance in so far as it provides liturgy and worship with a phenomenological framework that is both beguiling and enlightening.

Familiar everyday words such as “familiar” and “everyday” turn out to have hotly contested definitions, along with words such as “holy”, “mystery”, and “experience”. Yet we soon discover that, unless we subject such terms to careful analysis, they can become mere shibboleths char­acterised more by sentimentality than serious philosophical or theo­logical rigour. This, in its turn, has profound implications for the way we understand holiness, especially in the context of liturgy and worship.

This is not a book for the general reader, but it will challenge and change many of the academic assump­tions on which Otto’s phenomenology of religion has relied for nearly 100 years.

Dr Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln.

MICHAEL REA has edited essays on the Trinity, incarnation, and atone­ment, in Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume I. Among the contributors are Marilyn McCord Adams, Richard Swin­burne, and Brian Leftow (OUP, £42 (£37.80); 978-0-19-956065-3). Volume II covers Providence, scripture, and resurrection (OUP, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-19-923748-7).

MICHAEL REA has edited essays on the Trinity, incarnation, and atone­ment, in Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Volume I. Among the contributors are Marilyn McCord Adams, Richard Swin­burne, and Brian Leftow (OUP, £42 (£37.80); 978-0-19-956065-3). Volume II covers Providence, scripture, and resurrection (OUP, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-19-923748-7).

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

8 September 2022
Church Times Cricket Cup: North v. South
Join us to watch the match at the Walker Cricket Ground, in Southgate, north London.

26 September 2022
What am I living for? God
Sam Wells and Lucy Winkett begin the St Martin-in-the-Fields autumn lecture series in partnership with Church Times.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)