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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Trust and The Absolute Reality of the World

Phenomenology, brothers and sisters, is like learning to play the harmonica (or mandolin): it’s easy to get the hang of it, but mastery takes much time and practice.

A few years ago, I submitted an essay entitled “George Herbert and the Phenomenology of Grace” to an academic journal. Among other things, in the correspondence between the editor and myself, he had this to say: “Your essay…is beautifully written (to be honest, not something I expected from an essay that features the words “phenomenology” and “deconstruction” right from the beginning: usually these are sure signs to me that what follows will be, at least for me, tough sledding).” “Beautifully-written phenomenology” should not be an oxymoron. Unfortunately, phenomenology, especially that espoused (I’m not entirely sure it is practiced) in certain dark corners of academia does not hold clarity of expression as a virtue. It’s as if they only want to share the secret with a coterie of initiates or something.

But phenomenology, as far as I’m concerned, is the gateway drug to sophiology. And I don’t mean phenomenology as taught or articulated in obscurantist and purple prose, but phenomenology as something one does. It is not a philosophy. It is the furthest thing from a philosophy: it is an activity. An activity characterized by passivity, to be sure, but an activity nonetheless.

As Edmund Husserl famously wrote, phenomenology is an act of returning to the things themselves. That is, it is an act of presence before phenomena, a presence attentive to the presence(s) within phenomena. That is, in this contemplative engagement, the Things can (and do) reveal themselves to us. Sophiology, starting from this phenomenological disposition, attends to the revelation and gives it a name.

Both in phenomenology and in sophiology, the subject effectively places him- or herself in a childlike state: open to the world, unencumbered by ideology, perceptive to that which shines through the world. Thomas Traherne (yes, I am still working on my Metaphysical Poets course), one of the preeminent sophiologists to my way of thinking, beautifully describes this way of being:

Our Saviors Meaning, when He said, He must be Born again and becom a little Child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven: is Deeper far than is generally believed. It is not only in a Careless Reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to becom Little Children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our Anger and Simplicity of our Passions: but in the Peace and Purity of all our Soul. Which Purity also is a Deeper Thing then is commonly apprehended ꞏ for we must disrobe our selvs of all fals Colors, and unclothe our Souls of evil Habits; all our Thoughts must be Infant-like and Clear: the Powers of our Soul free from the Leven of this World, and disentangled from mens conceits and customs. Grit in the Ey or the yellow Jandice will not let a Man see those Objects truly that are before it. And therfore it is requisit that we should be as very Strangers to the Thoughts Customs and Opinions of men in this World as if we were but little Children.[1]

Traherne is often (and unjustly) accused of naiveté, but a more recent phenomenologist, St. Edith Stein, would beg to differ. In Finite and Eternal Being, she describes the fundamental human condition in a similar way, though in a very different historical and rhetorical context:

The undeniable fact that my being is limited in its transience from moment to moment and thus exposed to the possibility of nothingness is counterbalanced by the equally undeniable fact that despite this transience, I am, that from moment to moment I am sustained in my being, and that in my fleeting being I share in enduring being. In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest securely. This security, however, is not the self-assurance of one who under her own power stands on firm ground, but rather the sweet and blissful security of a child that is lifted up and carried by a strong arm. And, objectively speaking, this kind of security is not less rational. For if a child were living in constant fear that its mother might let it fall, we should hardly call this a “rational” attitude.[2]

What phenomenology discovers, then, is the absolute reality of the world. The discovery of this reality in turn opens us to an absolute trust in existence. Stein, Edmund Husserl’s assistant prior to becoming a Carmelite and who died on 9 August 1942 at Auschwitz, carried this assurance into the oven that turned her into pure spirit.

But this kind of assurance is difficult for us to accept. We want to trust it, but we are afraid. Indeed, is not the acrimony so characteristic of our moment not a product of our distrust in the reality of the world? Do we not distrust reality?

Edith Stein, prior to her entrance into Carmel

Rudolf Steiner (himself steeped in phenomenology and a university classmate of Husserl’s) fully understood this human, all too human tendency. During World War I he imparted a kind of prayer to his followers as a reminder of their own ability to rest in the strong arm which carries us:

We must eradicate from the soul

All fear and terror of what comes out of the future.

We must acquire serenity

In all feelings and sensations about the future.

We must look forward with absolute equanimity

To everything that may come.

And we must think only that whatever comes

Is given to us by a world-directive full of wisdom.

It is part of what we must learn in this age,

namely, to live out of pure trust,

Without any security in existence,

Trusting in the ever-present help

Of the spiritual world.

Truly, nothing else will do

If our courage is not to fail us.

So let us seek the awakening from within ourselves

Every morning and every evening.

And so, in these our anxious times, let us call to mind the absolute reality of the world and the love of the One who shines through it.

[1] Thomas Traherne, Century 3.5 in Poems, Centuries and Three Thanksgivings, ed. Anne Ridler (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 266.

[2] Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being: An Attempt at an Ascent to the Meaning of Being, trans. Kurt F. Reinhardt (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2002), 58.

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