There has been a remarkable surge of interest in religion among continental philosophers steeped in the tradition of phenomenology, in recent years. But not everyone has embraced this trend. In 1991, Dominique Janicaud denounced what he called the “theological turn” in phenomenology as a betrayal of the most basic principles of the phenomenological method. Rather than proceeding from a scrupulously neutral description of the phenomena of human experience, Janicaud accused philosophers such as Jean-Luc Marion, Emmanuel Levinas, and Michel Henry of using phenomenology “as a springboard in a quest for divine transcendence.” For Janicaud, the demands of the phenomenological reduction meant that theology, dogma, and faith in a transcendent God had no place in phenomenological analysis.

And yet, the history of phenomenology belies Janicaud’s account. Since the founding works of Edmund Husserl at the dawn of the twentieth century, phenomenology and religion have been intertwined. Though Husserl and Martin Heidegger were careful to distinguish between the two, both philosophers were steeped in the categories of a scholastic philosophy more commonly associated with the Catholic tradition. Husserl developed his concept of intentionality under the the influence of the priest and neo-scholastic philosopher Franz Brentano, and Heidegger, too, was initially drawn to phenomenology through his engagement with neo-scholasticism. And while we tend to associate phenomenology with the work of secular philosophers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, some of the earliest and most important architects of phenomenology were religious thinkers, including Edith Stein, Max Scheler, and Rudolf Otto. Indeed, in his recent book, Edward Baring has shown that Catholic philosophers played an outsized role in the early development of phenomenology and were in many ways responsible for transforming it into the continental philosophy par excellence. Far from constituting a recent “turn,” then, theology and religion were present at the very birth of phenomenology.

Why have religious philosophers and theologians been drawn to phenomenology in particular? The essays in this forum suggest several answers to this question. For Catholics alienated by modern philosophy, phenomenology’s emphasis on intentionality—the notion that human consciousness is always a consciousness “of” something—seemed to offer a path beyond the subjectivism of modern philosophy and the “naïve” naturalism of the scientific worldview.1 At the turn of the twentieth century, when much of the Church was still locked in a battle against the political, intellectual, and cultural institutions of modern life, many Catholics were excited about the possibility that the tools of modern philosophy might be used as a conduit to faith. Maurice Blondel called this the “method of immanence” because it took the dynamism of the human subject as the point of departure for apologetics, allowing Catholic philosophers to speak to modern men and women in the language of their times. For other religious thinkers, the appeal of phenomenology lay in its capacity to furnish a rigorous account of religious experience. As several of the essays in this forum attest, this feature has inspired a particular interest in mysticism on the part of phenomenologists, perhaps because the experience of the mystic poses in a particularly acute way the problem of whether and how humans can have a direct experience of the divine. For others, it was the way phenomenology illuminated the relationship between self and other that seemed to open up promising new avenues of inquiry into ethics, the nature of empathy and love, and personalism. As Dermot Moran shows us, all of these elements of the religious encounter with phenomenology came together in the story of the philosopher-saint Edith Stein.

But despite the prominent role of religious thinkers in the genesis and development of phenomenology, the relationship between phenomenology and religion has not always been easy. As Ed Baring points out in his introduction to this forum, the “paradox” of phenomenology is that it has been used both as a warrant for faith and as the basis for uncompromising atheism. Janicaud was by no means the first to denounce the incursion of theology into phenomenology; we see variations of this critique in Husserl’s response to Otto, in Heidegger’s concern to hold phenomenology apart from theology, and in Lyotard’s claim that Levinas must break with phenomenology to avoid becoming a “Christian” thinker. There are clearly some aspects of phenomenology that make it difficult to square with religious faith—whether it be Heideggerian commitment to human finitude or the demands of the reduction.

And yet, the fact that phenomenology was able to appeal to both religious and secular thinkers is a testament to its remarkable capacity to move across boundaries—whether national, disciplinary, or confessional.

As Baring shows in his book, phenomenology has facilitated conversions to Christianity—in the case of Edith Stein and Max Scheler—as well as from it, and has been mobilized as a weapon in interconfessional disputes between Protestants and Catholics, as well as intraconfessional ones between Thomist philosophers and Catholic existentialists. What accounts for this plasticity? In part, it may be the fact that phenomenology is first and foremost a method, which has allowed it to be deployed for a variety of (sometimes competing) ends. As the essays in this forum show us, this has made phenomenology a remarkably big tent. But even if we focus on the “classic” works of phenomenology by figures like Husserl or Heidegger, there are fairly significant tensions within and between their bodies of work—tensions that were then exploited in debates between their religious and secular readers. The debate that Sebbah highlights between Marion’s “Christian” and Lyotard’s “Jewish” readings of Levinas is a case in point.

But the ambivalent relationship between religion and phenomenology also invites us to consider the limits of the phenomenological method itself. This is most powerfully suggested by Amy Hollywood’s reading of William James in her essay for this forum. She convincingly demonstrates how, in seeking to isolate the authentic core of religious experience, James artificially separated the personal, interior, and immediate experience of God from the various forms of public worship and community that make such experiences possible. Hollywood suggests that James’s misreading might tell us something about the limits of the phenomenological method and of the reduction in particular. Is it possible to bracket the external context of dogma, theology, scripture, ecclesiastical institutions, et cetera when analyzing a religious experience, or are these contexts themselves constitutive of the experience in some fundamental way? And is it possible for the phenomenologist to bracket her own presuppositions about religion to engage in a neutral phenomenological description? It seems that James himself was unable to do so, since the narratives he relied on to make his case made no such distinction between the private and public dimensions of religious experience.

This raises a further set of questions about what kind of religion phenomenology presupposes. By privileging first-person religious experience over the many other aspects of religious life, does phenomenology narrow or distort our understanding of religion in some ways? More pointedly, does phenomenology perhaps reinforce the tendency of secular liberal thought to reduce religion to its private, individual expression at the expense of its public and communal manifestations? And in doing so, does it risk privileging certain religious traditions at the expense of others? Hollywood is right to point to the dangers of the cult of generalizability, which tends to elevate particular forms of religion (usually Western and Christian) as the norm or model for all others. And given the influence of James’s work on the study of religion, her critique invites us to consider how the history of phenomenology might illuminate the categories that contemporary scholars use to make sense of religious phenomena.

Indeed, perhaps one of the benefits of phenomenology’s engagement with religion is the way it has tended to push phenomenology beyond itself in various ways. The essays in this forum help to expand the definition of phenomenology by bringing its insights to bear on neighboring fields such as ethics, theology, and aesthetics. Noreen Khawaja’s fascinating study of the often overlooked artist Hilma af Klint suggests a possible parallel between the reduction in phenomenology and abstraction in modern art, conceived as a means to access the invisible. By moving beyond the canonical figures and texts associated with phenomenology, her essay and the others in this forum suggest how our definition of phenomenology might look different when we incorporate a broader range of voices beyond the “usual suspects.” They also point to the way questions of authority, power, and filiation have informed and mediated the history of phenomenology. As Khawaja argues, the phenomenological method is in many ways a self-authorizing discourse, and this is no doubt why the specter of theology seems so threatening to people like Janicaud, since it points to an authority beyond the level of human experience. In pointing beyond itself, we might ask, does phenomenology risk undoing its own authority?

These concerns are of course not specific to phenomenology, and indeed, the questions raised in this forum about the relationship between phenomenology and religion also apply more broadly to the relationship between philosophy and theology, or reason and revelation, in a secular world. Do philosophy and faith offer distinct truths or different paths to the same truth? Can philosophy provide a rational justification for faith? Or should theology and philosophy be kept rigorously distinct? And given the long historical entanglement between religious and secular thought, is such a sharp distinction even possible?

These questions sparked a fierce debate among French-speaking intellectuals in the 1930s, known as the “Christian philosophy” debate. For neo-Kantian philosophers like Émile Bréhier, the notion of “Christian philosophy” was a contradiction in terms because philosophy was governed by the authority of reason and therefore excluded any appeal to faith or revelation by definition. Rather surprisingly, the Thomist philosophers of Louvain who pioneered the Catholic engagement with phenomenology arrived at a remarkably similar position. They agreed on the need to distinguish theology from philosophy, but argued that doing so would actually break down the barrier Catholic and secular philosophers by allowing them to reach agreement on the purely rational terrain of philosophy. Other Catholics took a very different stance. For Maurice Blondel and his disciple Henri de Lubac, philosophy could not stand on its own two feet. The limits of reason would constantly drive philosophy beyond itself and into the realm of faith. As de Lubac explained, “philosophy, unable to give the total response to the problem of man and yet unable to disinterest itself in this response, cannot find its place of completion … except in revelation.”2 One wonders whether something similar might be said of phenomenology’s relationship to religion—the way it is constantly driven to ask theological questions that it cannot itself answer.

Whatever one’s stance on these issues, the specific case of phenomenology raises much broader questions about the complex relations between secular and religious thought, faith and reason in the modern world, which is why the essays in this forum will be of interest to so many.

  1. See Chapter 1 of Edward Baring’s Converts to the Real.

  2. Henri de Lubac, “On Christian Philosophy,” Communio 19 (Fall, 1992), 486-7. Initially published in Nouvelle Revue Théologique 63 (1936): 225-253.