Christopher Ben Simpson’s recent book, Merleau-Ponty and Theology, is the first book-length study bringing Merleau-Ponty’s thought into conversation with Christian theology. Simpson’s claim is that Merleau-Ponty’s insights, particularly those regarding the material realm (the “corporeal”), human bodies as living bodies (the “corporal”), and human social bodies (the “corporate”), can help one “think through afresh such Christian doctrines of creation, theological anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology” (ix). The book is structured in two parts. Part One focuses on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical contributions, and Part Two offers specific “sites of interaction between Merleau-Ponty’s thought and Christian theology” (ix).
Given some of my recent work on Foucault and Gadamer, I was drawn to Simpson’s discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of our social reality and truth as “sedimented.” From one perspective, the idea seems to be that our social world—a world into which we are both thrown and which we actively construct—is fluid and open to change yet is also determinate and thus allows for the establishment of shared languages, traditions, and practices. Unlike other non-human animals, we do not simply “get used to an environment”; rather, “we think, we engage in symbolic behavior and so ‘institute “cultures”’ as a particularly human order of sedimentation. There are multiple ‘fields’ beyond the ‘“natural body”’ and its modifications: ‘imaginary fields, ideological fields, mythical fields’” (Merleau-Ponty, Institution and Passivity, 124; Simpson, 76). From another perspective, Merleau-Ponty describes truth as a sedimentation. Here the idea is that our present truth also involves past truths that have proven themselves as true; however, present truth, being historical and contextualized, is not a simple repetition of the past in the present. Stated differently, past truths must be taken up in new ways that speak to the realities of our own time. Tradition is not static, but dynamic, allowing “for both continuity and novelty” (145).
In Part Two, 8.2, Simpson discusses how various Christian thinkers including Maximus and Augustine have conceived of Christian tradition in ways consonant with Merleau-Ponty’s insights. Augustine, for example, emphasizes the historical and “fitting” character of revelation. Commenting on Augustine’s view, Simpson writes, “The revelatory ‘oracles’ of God were presented through and to humans in history ‘by certain signs and sacraments suitable to the times’ (Augustine, The City of God, VII.32, XVIII.41). Revelation, Augustine writes, was only understandable and ‘suited to our wandering state’ (Augustine, The Trinity, IV.1.1,2) inasmuch as it spoke to us through some created and so changeable (historically mutable) substance (Augustine, The City of God, XVI.6; Augustine, The Trinity, I.1.1,2, II.3.9,16, II.5.15,25). Thus revelation condescends, ‘stoops’ to us in order to ‘nourish our understanding and enable it to rise up to the sublimities of divine things’ (Augustine, The City of God, XV.25; Augustine, The Trinity, I.1.1,2). Lastly, similar to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of tradition as that which is “handed over,” given, received, and reconfigured for the present, Christian thinkers such as Irenaeus and Gregory of Nazianzus have likewise understood the movement of Christian tradition as that which involves a “preserved continuity, unity, and catholicity in the midst of continually different and creative cultural and historical appropriations” (147).
Simpson covers many other theological topics such as divine transcendence, Christ as “vinculum between God, humanity, and nature,” God in the world, embodied spirituality, the Spirit and the Church, and so forth. Those interested both in gaining a deeper understanding of key concepts and emphases in Merleau-Ponty’s thought and (re)thinking traditional Christian themes in a phenomenological key will find Simpson’s book a treat.