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Keeping Sense Open: Jean-Luc Nancy, Karl Rahner, and Bodies

  • Peter Joseph Fritz (a1)


This article introduces the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy to theologians by placing him in critical dialogue with Karl Rahner. It examines how Nancy's deconstruction of Christianity accuses Western reason, including Christianity, of forgetting the body and supporting an ethos of disembodiment. Nancy proposes a new opening of reason (déclosion, “dis-closure”) and a corresponding praxis (“adoration”). This reason and praxis involve an exit from Christianity. Rahnerian essays on matter, spirit, and sacramentality demonstrate that while Christianity has, historically, fallen prey to the pathologies Nancy identifies, it also has thought in terms of something like dis-closed reason and has practiced something like “adoration.” While Nancy's insistence on the need for an exit from Christianity is not necessarily well posed, his deconstruction of Christianity can help Christian theologians as they develop thinking that supports an ethos sensitive to the body—or that keeps the body's sense open.

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1 Nancy's ongoing project has garnered great scholarly interest. The first and most potent manifestation of this is Fordham University Press's massive effort to translate and to publish Nancy's works. At this point, its catalogue includes around twenty—and counting—of Nancy's works, including the main ones on Christianity. The foremost secondary source in English is a volume of essays also published by Fordham: Alexandrova, Alena, Devisch, Ignaas, Kate, Laurens Ten, and Van Rooden, Aukje, eds., Re-treating Religion: Deconstructing Christianity with Jean-Luc Nancy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). But there are others, of which I cite just some, one may consult for further bibliography: Hutchens, Benjamin C., Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005), 85102 ; Schrijvers, Joeri, “What Comes after Christianity? Jean-Luc Nancy's Deconstruction of Christianity,” Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009): 266–91; Watkin, Christopher, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011); Cariolato, Alfonso, “Jean-Luc Nancy and the Deconstruction of Faith,” in Jean-Luc Nancy and Plural Thinking: Expositions of World, Ontology, Politics, and Sense, ed. Gratton, Peter and Morin, Marie-Eve (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 2742 ; Morin, Marie-Eve, Jean-Luc Nancy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 4871 ; Rivera, Mayra, Poetics of the Flesh (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 96101 .

2 My formulation simplifies somewhat Nancy's description of deconstruction, which he discusses in terms of the “points of assemblage” of Christianity where “there is perhaps something to be brought to light and let play as such, something that Christianity may not yet have freed.” Thus deconstruction aims to discover how Christianity is put together so that, perhaps, it might find different possibilities for its construction. Nancy, Jean-Luc, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bergo, Bettina, Malenfant, Gabriel, and Smith, Michael B. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 149 .

3 Nancy, Jean-Luc, Corpus, trans. Rand, Richard (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 73 .

4 Nancy, Corpus, 3; Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 151; Nancy, Jean-Luc, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, trans. McKeane, John (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 13.

5 Tallon, Andrew, “Editor's Introduction,” in Rahner, Karl, Hearer of the Word: Laying the Foundation for a Philosophy of Religion, trans. Donceel, Joseph, ed., with an introduction, Tallon, Andrew (New York: Continuum, 1994), ixxxii ; Purcell, Michael, Mystery and Method: The Other in Rahner and Levinas (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998); Purcell, , “Rahner amid Modernity and Post-Modernity,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Rahner, ed. Marmion, Declan and Hines, Mary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 195210 ; Regan, Ethna, “Not Merely the Cognitive Subject: Rahner's Theological Anthropology,” in Karl Rahner: Theologian for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Conway, Pádraic and Ryan, Fáinche (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010), 121–40; Fritz, Peter Joseph, Karl Rahner's Theological Aesthetics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014); Fritz, , “Karl Rahner Repeated in Jean-Luc Marion?,” Theological Studies 73, no. 2 (2012): 318–38; Fritz, , “Karl Rahner, Friedrich Schelling, and Original Plural Unity,” Theological Studies 75, no. 2 (2014): 284307 .

6 Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie, John and Robinson, Edward (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1962), §1 and §44b; and Heidegger, , Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Fried, Gregory and Polt, Richard (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 20.

7 This is true of a broad swath of Rahner's writings on God, mystery, symbol, church, Mary, concupiscence, and various other topics, but clearest for our purposes here is Rahner, Karl, “Forgotten Truths about the Sacrament of Penance,” in Man in the Church, vol. 2 of Theological Investigations, trans. Kruger, Karl H. (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1963), 135–74.

8 This is much of the upshot of Corpus.

9 Heidegger, Martin, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, ed. Krell, David Farrell (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 256.

10 McNeill, William, The Time of Life: Heidegger and Ethos (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).

11 Fritz, Karl Rahner's Theologial Aesthetics, 11–12.

12 Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 122.

13 The main texts under consideration are the following: Rahner, Karl, “The Unity of Spirit and Matter in the Christian Understanding of Faith,” in Concerning Vatican Council II, vol. 6 of Theological Investigations, trans. Kruger, Karl H. and Kruger, Boniface (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1969), 153–77; Rahner, , “Überlegungen zum personalen Vollzug des sakramentalen Geschehens,” in Leiblichkeit der Gnade: Schriften zur Sakramentenlehre, vol. 18 of Sämtliche Werke, ed. Knoch, Wendelin and Trappe, Tobias (Freiburg: Herder, 2003), 458–76; Rahner, , “Considerations on the Active Role of the Person in the Sacramental Event,” in Theology, Anthropology, Christology, vol. 14 of Theological Investigations, trans. Bourke, David (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 161–84. Since there are problems with the Bourke translation that necessitate retranslation, I shall cite the German, giving my translations.

14 Nancy, Jean-Luc, Corpus (Paris: Diffusion Seuil, 1992); Nancy, , Déconstruction du christianisme, vol. 1, La déclosion (Paris: Galilée, 2005); Nancy, , Déconstruction du christianisme, vol. 2, L'adoration (Paris: Galilée, 2010).

15 Nancy, Jean-Luc, La création du monde, ou la mondialisation (Paris: Galilée, 2002); Nancy, , Creation of the World, or Globalization, trans. Raffoul, François and Pettigrew, David (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007); Nancy, Au fond des images (Paris: Galilée, 2003); Nancy, , The Ground of the Image, trans. Fort, Jeff (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Nancy, , Noli me tangere: Essai sur la levée du corps (Paris: Bayard, 2003); Nancy, , Noli me tangere: On the Raising of the Body, trans. Clift, Sarah, Brault, Pascale-Anne, and Naas, Michael (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Nancy, , Corpus II: Writings on Sexuality, trans. O'Byrne, Anne (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

16 See Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 1.

17 Nancy, Adoration, 32: “There is not even ‘atheism’; ‘atheist’ is not enough! It is the positing of the principle that must be emptied. It is not enough to say that God takes leave, withdraws, or is incommensurable. It is even less a question of placing another principle on this throne—Mankind, Reason, Society. It is a question of coming to grips with this: the world rests on nothing—and this in its keenest sense.”

18 Nancy, Adoration, 22: “Why speak of Christianity? In truth, I'd like to speak of it as little as possible. I'd like to move toward an effacement of this name and of the whole corpus of references that follows it—a corpus that is already mostly effaced or has lost its vitality.”

19 Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 30.

20 Of particular importance for Nancy is Merleau-Ponty's later work on the flesh. See Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible, Followed by Working Notes, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

21 This argument is a staple of Nancy's thought perhaps from the beginning, but he starts pursuing it in earnest especially in Le sens du monde (Paris: Galilée, 1993); Nancy, , The Sense of the World, trans. Librett, Jeffrey S. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

22 Nancy, Corpus, 15: “There's no ‘death,’ taken as an essence to which we've been consigned: there's the body, the mortal spacing of the body, registering the fact that existence has no essence (not even ‘death’), but only ex-ists.” The claim that existence has no essence is the advance beyond Sartre.

23 See Nancy, Corpus, 65–67.

24 One might remark that Nancy is merely borrowing here from Karl Marx. This is, in part, right, but just as Marx accused Ludwig Feuerbach of being too residually theological in his rejection of Christianity, so does Nancy accuse Marx of the same transgression. Marx believed in teleology. Nancy does not. Nancy proposes, in lieu of a telos that will never come, a struggle for a justice that may never come, but for which nevertheless one must struggle. See Nancy, Creation of the World, 38–39, 45, 109–12.

25 Nancy, Corpus, 87.

26 Ibid., 111. For my recent discussion of Nancy's alignment of Christianity and capitalism, see Fritz, Peter Joseph, “Capitalism—or Christianity: Jean-Luc Nancy on Creation and Incarnation,” Political Theology 15 (2014): 421–37.

27 Cf. Peter Gratton and Marie-Eve Morin, introduction to Jean-Luc Nancy and Plural Thinking, 1–10, at 3.

28 Nancy, Sense of the World, 11.

29 Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Muses, trans. Kamuf, Peggy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 35. For a theological appropriation of Nancy's transimmanence, see Taylor, Mark Lewis, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), esp. chaps. 3–5.

30 Nancy, Sense of the World, 55.

31 Nancy, Corpus, 83.

32 Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 1.

33 Nancy, Adoration, 23 (emphasis in the original).

34 Nancy, Corpus, 67.

35 Ibid.: “Through and through, angelic logic and the whole corpus of philosophical bodies are subjected to the signifying law, in such a way that signification (or representation) gives sense to the body, making it the sign of sense. All bodies are signs, just as all signs are (signifying) bodies.”

36 Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 81.

37 Nancy, Corpus, 3.

38 Ibid., 5 (emphasis in the original). For Nancy's earlier thinking on sacrifice, religion, and the body, see Nancy, , “The Sublime Offering,” in Courtine, Jean-François et al. , Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. Librett, Jeffrey S. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 2554 .

39 Nancy, Corpus, 69 (emphasis in the original).

40 Nancy, Noli me tangere, 3–54.

41 Ian James, “Incarnation and Infinity,” in Re-treating Religion, 243–60, at 254.

42 Nancy, Noli me tangere, 14.

43 See Nancy, Corpus, 61–65, on “glorious” bodies.

44 Nancy, Noli me tangere, 15.

45 Ibid., 37.

46 James, “Incarnation and Infinity,” 253.

47 Nancy, Adoration, 7.

48 This sentence summarizes a good deal of the content in Nancy, Adoration, 40–41.

49 Nancy, Adoration, 13; cf. Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 136.

50 Nancy, Adoration, 15.

51 Ibid., 42.

52 Ibid., 55.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid., 56–57.

55 Ibid., 56.

56 Ibid., 58.

57 Nancy, Dis-Enclosure, 150.

58 Nancy, Adoration, 26: “In truth, Christianity unceasingly reforged the sacred link and religious observance, because its destiny as a religion depended on them.”

59 Nancy, Adoration, 27.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid., 8.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid., 9.

64 Ibid., 39.

65 Ibid., 49.

66 Ibid., 52.

67 Ibid., 52–53.

68 On this exchange, see Saghafi, Kas, Apparitions—of Derrida's Other (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 129–46; and Shakespeare, Steven, “The Word Became Machine: Derrida's Technology of Incarnation,” Derrida Today 6, no. 1 (2013): 3657 . The main source on Derrida's side is Derrida, Jacques, On Touching—Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Irizarry, Christine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005). This English translation of Derrida's Le toucher (2000) includes a postmortem open letter from Nancy to Derrida; see Jean-Luc Nancy, “Salut to you, salut to the blind we become,” in Derrida, On Touching, 313–14. While this exchange is interesting in itself and does relate to what I am working on in this article, I shall not discuss it any further.

69 Nancy, Adoration, 28.

70 Ibid.

71 Among these are some of Rahner's most familiar writings, such as The Theology of the Symbol,” in More Recent Writings, vol. 4 of Theological Investigations, trans. Smyth, Kevin (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), 221–52; and Rahner, , The Church and Sacraments, trans. O'Hara, W. J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963). For a one-volume collection of these familiar works and many important lesser-known ones, consult Rahner, Leiblichkeit der Gnade. This editor-selected title of volume 18 of the Sämtliche Werke, which can be translated as Corporeality of Grace, cries out for a Rahner-Nancy dialogue such as I am prosecuting here.

72 Rahner, “Unity,” 153.

73 Ibid., 156.

74 Ibid., 155–56.

75 Ibid., 166, 169, 173.

76 Ibid., 158.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid., 159.

80 Ibid.

81 Rahner makes apposite comments about angels’ relation to the material world in The Theology of Death, a book that has been underappreciated as a speculative work. See Rahner, , The Theology of Death, trans. O'Hara, W. J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1961), 23, 5253 .

82 Rahner, Karl and Overhage, Paul, Das Problem der Hominisation (Freiburg: Herder, 1961); Rahner, and Overhage, , Hominisation, trans. O'Hara, W. J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965).

83 Rahner, “Unity,” 168; see 177.

84 Patrick Burke, for example, expresses reservations regarding this phrase, but he never specifies them. It is telling that he promises to return later in his book to the idea of “frozen spirit” so he might critique the incipient “philosophical monism” he detects in it. Telling, because if one knows Rahner, one knows that his thought differs widely from philosophical monism, be it ancient (Plato) or modern (Spinoza). Thus, it is likely that no adequate critique could have been constructed. Instead, Rahner's thinking on things like matter as “frozen spirit” avoids the specter of monism while, perhaps paradoxically, aspiring to a certain nondualism—or, as Rahner would call it, Christianity. See Burke, , Reinterpreting Rahner: A Critical Study of His Major Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 102, 110.

85 Rahner, “Unity,” 170.

86 Ibid., 169.

87 Ibid., 174.

88 Ibid., 176.

89 Cf. Rahner, “Unity,” 169.

90 Rahner, “Personalen Vollzug,” 458.

91 Ibid., 459.

92 Ibid.

93 Ibid., 461.

94 Ibid.

95 Ibid., 462.

96 Ibid., 463.

97 Ibid., 465. I translate the polysemic word eigentliche as “proper” to underscore the fact that, for Rahner, the liturgy of the world really does belong to the world, inasmuch as God has created the world with its own capacity for self-transcendence.

98 Rahner, “Personalen Vollzug,” 468.

99 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), §10, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Tanner, Norman P. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 2:823.

100 Rahner, “Personalen Vollzug,” 469.

101 Ibid., 472. A critical reader may note that in the particular sentence I am citing, Rahner considers the individual believer, but his discussion of the church in the prior sentences applies no less to what he says regarding the individual.

102 Rahner, “Personalen Vollzug,” 472.

103 Ibid., 474.

104 Hutchens, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy, 101.

105 Watkin introduces the term “yet without” in passing early in his book, Difficult Atheism (14), and defines it in several ways throughout. The paradigmatic definition is as follows: it “breaks with determinate sense yet without descending into nonsense, it breaks with the infinite horizon yet without closing in on itself in self-identicality” (74). Reference for the block quote: 80.

106 Watkin, Difficult Atheism, 80.

107 It is worth asking, for example, why Nancy begins the book Adoration with the following epigraph from Wittgenstein: “The form of spirit as it awakes is adoration.” Nancy, Adoration, 1; cf. 86–87.

108 Nancy, Adoration, 99.

109 Rahner, Karl, Geist in Welt: Zur Metaphysik der endlichen Erkenntnis bei Thomas von Aquin, vol. 2 of Sämtliche Werke, ed. Raffelt, Albert (Freiburg: Herder, 1996), 5300 ; Rahner, , Spirit in the World, trans. Dych, William SJ (New York: Continuum, 1994).

110 I prefer to cite the German, since the existing English translation presents some serious difficulties. Rahner, Karl, “Logik der existentiellen Erkenntnis bei Ignatius von Loyola,” in Kirche in den Herausforderungen der Zeit: Studien zur Ekklesiologie und zur kirchlichen Existenz, vol. 10 of Sämtliche Werke, ed. Heislbetz, Josef and Raffelt, Albert (Freiburg: Herder, 2003), 368420 .

111 I am grateful to my colleague Matthew Eggemeier for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this article, and to the three anonymous referees for their generous, detailed suggestions. The final product is far better for all this collaboration.



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