An excerpt from The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry and Philosophy/ Philosophical Essays on Poetry and Theology by Michael Martin (Angelico Press, 2017)
The Appearing: Sophiology, Poetry, and the Call for an Absolute Catholic Phenomenology
That Things can reveal themselves to us as they are, not only in their physicality but, more importantly, in their being, is an essential insight of phenomenology. This appearing likewise constitutes an integral phenomenal quality of religious experience and, as this chapter will argue, of sophiology. As Martin Heidegger (among others) has observed, poetry, the articulation of the poetic (here conceived more broadly than in the context of verse alone), is the paradigmatic site for such an appearing. My venture here is to suggest that the twentieth-century advent of phenomenology in the West was complemented by the arrival of sophiology (particularly in its iterations brought forth by Sergei Bulgakov and Pavel Florensky) in the East and that both can only be fully realized, and their catholicity achieved, by their being taken up by a poetic utterance fully articulated in a Catholic, sacramental metaphysics. It’s not that I’m proposing a marriage between phenomenology and sophiology. My claim is that they are already married.
First: phenomenology. In the record of her conversations with him, Adelgundis Jaegerschmid recalls how Edmund Husserl’s insights regarding phenomenology were both ontologically and teleologically religious: “my philosophy, phenomenology,” he is reported to have said, “is intended to be nothing but a path, a method, in order to show precisely those who have moved away from Christianity and from the Christian churches the path back to God.” And, as he confessed to Edith Stein, “I have attempted to get through to the end without the help of theology, its proofs and its methods; in other words, I have wanted to attain God without God.” Such a desire is certainly not explicit in Husserl’s public writings, wherein God or religion are rarely mentioned, but such a phenomenon, an experience, is certainly implicit in the phenomenological act itself. Nevertheless, it was as a science (Wissenschaft) that Husserl presented phenomenology (a mistake echoed by his more esoteric contemporary and fellow student of Brentano’s, Rudolf Steiner, who called his method Geisteswissenschaft).
This avoidance of “the God question” among early phenomenologists was given the lie by the—somewhat staggering given their predispositions, but understandable to anyone who has ever persevered in the praxis of phenomenological reduction over time—numerous accounts of phenomenologists turning to religion, in particular to forms of orthodox (or, more rarely, heterodox) Christianity. Indeed, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Adolf Reinach, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Dietrich von Hildebrand, to which one could add both Karol Wojtyla and Rudolf Steiner, all came to profoundly religious—and profoundly Christian—insights as a result of their phenomenological investigations.
To sum up: there has been no “religious turn” in phenomenology. Rather, phenomenology is an inherently religious turn in and of itself.
This development, I think, has everything to do with the way the phenomenological reduction allows Things to speak for themselves without the baggage of colonization so characteristic of other modes of inquiry (whether it be the organons of feminist or Marxist theory, for instance; whether its stance is more in allegiance with Bacon or Kant). That is to say that the contemplative stance is far purer, far more integrative than any other approach, and this despite what I would call phenomenology’s employment of the technology of intentionality, or, as Heidegger has written, “the setting in order of everything that presences as standing-reserve.”
For, at the very least, the phenomenological reduction (epoché) is a technology, an appropriation, an apprehension, a taking-hold-of (albeit less violent than other methods). However, the technology of intentionality, as it is employed in the phenomenological reduction, only bears fruit when it is relinquished or forgotten.
It is my claim that when intentionality is relinquished or forgotten that the phenomenological reduction then metamorphoses into contemplation (theoria); a contemplation, according to Plotinus, from which all things arise and in which all things truly have being (Enneads 3.8.7). This notion bears some resemblance to Marvin Shaw’s concept of the “paradox of intention,” but I don’t think they are identical concepts. Nevertheless, it is my intention to follow this trace along another pathway, and argue that it is precisely by way of this metamorphosis into contemplation that phenomenology enters into the sophiological.
As has often been noted, a series of religious experiences drew Sergei Bulgakov, for a time an atheist and a Marxist, back to the religion of his fathers and, eventually, to the Orthodox priesthood. These religious experiences brought Bulgakov to an explicitly sophianic understanding of the world. The first such experience was inspired by the splendor of the natural world as he travelled across the steppes and took in a majestic view of the Caucasus at sunset.
“Suddenly, in that evening hour,” he writes,
my soul was joyfully stirred. I started to wonder what would happen if the cosmos were not a desert and its beauty not a mask of deception—if nature were not death, but life. If he existed, the merciful and loving Father, if nature was the vesture of his love and glory, and if the pious feelings of my childhood, when I used to live in his presence, when I loved him and trembled because I was weak, were true, then the tears and inspiration of my adolescence, the sweetness of my prayers, my innocence, and all those emotions which I had rejected and trodden down would be vindicated, and my present outlook with its emptiness and deadness would appear nothing more than blindness and lies, and what a transformation it would bring to me!
As an aside, it is worth noting that the natural world often plays a role in the religious experiences of visionary children: the Virgin appearing above a tree to the children at Fatima; St. Michael likewise appearing to St. Joan of Arc before a venerable oak; or even the Virgin’s appearance to St. Bernadette Soubirous in a garbage dump that eventually led to the discovery of a hidden spring famous throughout the world for its miraculous healings. Indeed, especially in the case of Bernadette and the spring at Lourdes, are these not sophiology’s promises made manifest, the Wisdom of God shining through nature?
Three years following his Caucasian experience, Bulgakov’s conversion further unfolded in Dresden, as he contemplated Raphael’s Sistine Madonna:
The eyes of the Heavenly Mother who holds in her arms the Eternal Infant, pierced my soul. I cried joyful and yet bitter tears, and with them the ice melted from my soul, and some of my psychological knots were loosened. This was an aesthetic emotion, but it was also a new knowledge; it was a miracle. I was then still a Marxist, but I was obliged to call my contemplation of the Madonna by the name of “prayer.” I went to the Zwinger Gallery early in the mornings to pray and weep in front of the Virgin.
After another religious experience connected with a visit to Hagia Sophia, Bulgakov finally returned to full communion with the Church and was ordained a priest in 1918.
Now, it goes without saying that Bulgakov in these experiences was not engaging in the methodological process known as the phenomenological reduction (epoché), in the spirit of Husserl’s Wissenschaft. Nevertheless, each of the phenomena in question undoubtedly disclosed themselves to Bulgakov (or were disclosed to him, if one prefers the scientific impartiality of the passive voice). They also, it could be argued, disclosed more than themselves.
Author Michael Martin is not only a philosopher and theologian, he he is teacher, recording artist, poet, and biodynamic farmer, as well as a father. He is the author of several books besides the one excerpted above, including "The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics" and "Meditations in Times of Wonder." In addition, he is the editor of JESUS THE IMAGINATION: A Journal of Spiritual Revolution.