Book Symposium: Futurity in Phenomenology – Christina Gschwandtner Reviews DeRoo

The following is a review from Christina Gschwandtner in our book Symposium on Neal DeRoo’s Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida. Christina M. Gschwandtner teaches Continental philosophy of religion at Fordham University. She is author of Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics (Indiana, 2007), Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy (Fordham, 2012), and Degrees of Givennness: On Saturation in Jean-Luc Marion (Indiana, forthcoming 2014). She has also translated several of Marion’s books and Michel Henry’s Words of Christ.


In his Futurity in Phenomenology, Neil DeRoo argues that futurity plays a significant role in phenomenology, that it constitutes the self in an important fashion and that the notion of the promise lies at the core of the phenomenological project. This “promissory nature” of phenomenology speaks of a fundamental openness of the subject. In DeRoo’s view both Levinas and Derrida pursue this openness to the future in various ways that enable us to think differently about intentionality.

DeRoo contends that this provides a new perspective on the thinkers of the so-called “theological turn,” suggesting that recognizing the future inscribed at the very heart of phenomenological thinking might open up certain theological possibilities or at least might make a conversation between the two less artificial and contrived. This is the issue I would like to pursue in this post (more in the spirit of opening a conversation than a commentary on DeRoo’s analysis of phenomenological method per se) by providing an example of a possible application of such a promissory function in the ecclesial realm. The most interesting implication for theology I find to be in terms of what happens within liturgy, a topic Jean-Yves Lacoste—on whom DeRoo relies at several points—has already explored phenomenologically in some detail. Lacoste suggests that time plays an important role in constituting the liturgical self as “being-before-God” by orienting us toward the promise of God’s advent (see especially chapter 4 on “The Absolute Future” in his Experience and the Absolute). Lacoste does not directly analyze liturgical rites and actions, but speaks of liturgy more generally as our liminal exposure before the absolute (reaching its height in kenotic abnegation). Yet liturgy displays eminently well not only the future orientation of experience but the ways in which this eschatological dimension reshapes and transforms the self within it. Contemporary liturgical scholars concur with the contention Alexander Schmemann first articulated most clearly that within liturgy the future (parousia) is anticipated within the present, that liturgy “opens the kingdom” and allows us to enter within it and make its promise present in our lives (see his For the Life of the World; Introduction to Liturgical Theology or The Eucharist: Entry into the Kingdom). Liturgy is “doing the world as it was supposed to be done” (in liturgical scholar Kavanagh’s famous phrase) in light of the anticipation of the eschatological promise.

DeRoo suggests that a “promissory understanding of phenomenology” can enable us to analyze “the self-understanding of communities and institutions” (9). Liturgy played precisely this kind of role in early Christianity where liturgical processions and celebrations, fasting and almsgiving, the building of basilicas (modeled on public houses) and xenodochia/hospitia (guesthouses & early hospitals) took over important public and social functions, just as the world “leitourgia,” which originally designated public service performed on behalf of society, was appropriated for designating the “work of the people” gathered around the promise of the Eucharist. Liturgy functions explicitly as anticipation (in the eschatological sense DeRoo appropriates from Lacoste). In liturgical participation the present is transformed via an anticipation that always remains futural and promised, while becoming a present experience. This deeply shapes “our experience of being a subject in and with a world” (53), although it also transforms this world. The liturgy opens a world in which the self is addressed by the call that invites it into a new future—that of the Eucharistic promise—a future that opens and transforms the present. New possibilities of constituting the self are made possible by the liturgical act (here Ricoeur’s and Heidegger’s contributions might be particularly helpful). This is evident not only in the Eucharist but also in other liturgical actions, such as repentance and baptism. (It might also have interesting overlap with the work of Richard Kearney and his articulation of a God of promise “who may be” and becomes only as we “help God be God” through the acts of charity we offer on behalf of the weak and marginalized.)

DeRoo, relying on Levinas, speaks of this as an ethical dimension, although ethics must be heard in a much broader sense than we usually define it. Liturgy indeed provides “the possibility of a nonepistemological understanding of the role of the future in shaping our understanding of the present” (85), which DeRoo calls “ethical” and I would want to call here, with Lacoste, “liturgical”—maybe it would make sense to speak of it as broadly transformative or as impacting actions in certain ways. Participation in the liturgical promise as it becomes instantiated in the Eucharistic gift not only shapes me as a certain kind of self but also provides a vision for how I am to act in the world: in service and openness to others. And it does so in communal, not merely individual fashion. I am constituted by the other—both human and divine. This is encounter, but not necessarily relation, certainly not in any symmetrical sense. DeRoo claims that “futurity shows to us the essential openness of the subject” (92). In liturgy consciousness is constituted by the other via the opening of the promise of expectation. Liturgy is response to the divine other, but this response is not merely passive. Rather, this openness must be appropriated. It is not automatic; it requires response. Or, as DeRoo recognizes for Levinas, it “commits us or in some way makes us responsible to other people” (93). The promise (and the responsibility) can be refused. Similarly, the promise of the Eucharistic liturgy can remain meaningless and its opening closed down.

In the final part of the book, DeRoo argues that Derrida brings together aspects of activity in Husserl and passivity in Levinas, enabling us to hold these important elements together. This deals with one of the central phenomenological problems DeRoo rightly highlights: how to reconcile a stress on the self-giving of the phenomenon with the constituting or at least receptive self (141). Liturgy can provide an important pointer here: The deferred messianic future (though of course not in Derrida’s sense) both breaks in and is continually deferred in the liturgical cycle, such as its celebration of the Paschal mystery each year (in some sense each Sunday) and the continual call for repentance, always renewed. It is both given or available and must be received or appropriated. The liturgical self is not merely passive, nor does it fully constitute the other, but activity and passivity come together in celebration, which includes both mourning and feasting. In the liturgy, “eschatological waiting is teleologically active” (133) in a theological, and indeed in a concrete practical, sense. The promise of the eschaton functions as a liturgical summons to transfigure this world into the world to come, to act as we would “when the Messiah comes.” Within liturgy, the promise concretely constitutes the self and community in a way that does not defer action to the future or locate it in some other reality, but rather enables the people’s “work” of response in the here and now as it is interpreted and constituted by remembrance and eschatological expectation.

Christina Gschwantner :
  • Chris Tracy

    Great post. Though I have no formal training in this tradition of philosophy, I find that my theological upbringing provides me the tools to be a partner in this conversation. I look forward to learning more and more from this journal and it’s contributors.