Rhythm

A Theological Category

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Lexi Eikelboom
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198828839.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his commentary on the letters of St. Paul, Giorgio Agamben argues that we should consider the apostle’s notion of messianic time as a peculiar relationship between the experience of chronological time and its representation. Putting aside the question of whether the pure experience of chronological time, the durée as Henri Bergson would put it, might be faithfully represented, Agamben borrows a distinction from Gustave Guillaume in order to draw attention to the time it takes for time to be represented, to that uninterrogated temporality sliced in-between time as a chronological experience, and time as a spatialized representation. Agamben, thereby, gestures towards what one might term the diachronic and synchronic rhythms of experience, as well as pose the question of their configuration, their relation, or non-relation.

In Rhythm: A Theological Category, Lexi Eikelboom interrogates precisely this configuration as she seeks to establish rhythm as a fruitful “category” for theological thought. Proposing that we should accept a specific concept as a theological category is as ambitious as it is risky; it is an endeavor that could easily lead one astray. It is not hard to imagine that the category of rhythm might turn out to be too meager and conceptually flimsy to provide any value to theology, or perhaps simply unfruitful for elucidating theological matters. Nonetheless, Eikelboom shows by way of argument as well as application that rhythm is indeed a rich and potent category, which theologians do well to acknowledge.

Philosophical approaches to the concept of rhythm, Eikelboom argues, may (very roughly) be divided among those who follow the pre-Socratic understanding of the rhythmic as fluidity, as form in motion, and those aligned with the Platonic definition of rhythm as “an ordered sequence of movements subject to numbering,” from which our associations of rhythm with beats, meter and periodicity derive (5). While she acknowledges the important philosophical work that has been done on rhythm, not least the significant developments in 20th century continental philosophy, Eikelboom daringly proposes her own phenomenology of rhythm in the first chapter. Rhythm should not be understood as a circumscribed phenomenon, she argues, but rather as something sounding with connotations of the metaphysical, something reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh: “a medium that is a manner of being in the world, a style of being that makes the sort of relations we experience possible” (23).

Her phenomenology results in a twofold understanding of rhythm as a synchronicity and diachronicity. The diachronic and synchronic aspects of rhythm correspond more or less to Agamben’s distinction between the experienced time and its representation. In poetry, for example, the visual structure of poem as a whole may reveal a synchronic rhythm which neither can be repeated by, nor exhaustively define, the rhythm of its diachronic performance. These two aspects are then explored in chapters 2 and 3, by an interrogation of philosophies whose interpretation of rhythm leans in either direction—towards a view of rhythm as the whole, or as interruption.

A crucial part of that interrogation consists in relating it to contemporary theology. For it is ultimately the theological relation which concerns Eikelboom in this book. Catherine Keller’s process theology is charged with stressing the diachronic aspect of rhythm to the expense of the sense of irruption, betraying an over-confidence in the creature’s vision of the whole—a surprising and interesting charge, given Keller’s own intentions (82-84). Eikelboom’s defense of Agamben’s philosophy against theological attacks in chapter 3 is perhaps more generous than what he deserves, and the treatment of Jean-Luc Marion is not developed enough to warrant a section. Yet, throughout, she demonstrates the fruitfulness of the endeavor.

The latter part of the book is devoted to developing a theology of rhythm. The work the of 20th century Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara, in particular his Analogia Entis (Eerdmans, 2014), plays a key role in developing a theologically sensitive understanding of rhythm. As a synthesis of Przywara, Eikelboom’s exposition does a marvelous job of drawing out the dynamic understanding of intra-creaturely life and its relation to the divine. The analogy of being on Pryzwara’s model, Eikelboom shows, is not merely a term for the “in-and-beyond” structure of divine transcendence, but should be understood as “a relation between the movements of the intra-creaturely and the movements of the relationship between God and the intra-creaturely” (160). It should, to put it differently, be understood as the unpredictable rhythm located at the intersection between the rhythms of creaturely life and the rhythms of God’s interaction with and presence in the world.

With Pryzwara’s understanding of analogy, Eikelboom claims to have found an apt metaphysics of rhythm, one which allows one to strike a fine balance between the synchronic and the diachronic, between the rhythmic structures surveyed by univocal vision and the unexpected interruptions of rhythm as it takes its time. Theologically, this is an attempt to get at a subtle understanding of God’s transcendence and immanence. It enables Eikelboom to show how theological renditions of transcendence inspired by Augustine of Hippo and his understanding of rhythm, risk slipping into the construction of univocal hierarchies when they fail to acknowledge how synchronic rhythms are intersected by diachronic ones.

In the two final chapters, Eikelboom touches on the doctrines of creation and salvation, so as to gesture towards where these developments might take us. These chapters are more than applications of abstract philosophical forms to doctrinal matter, and both strike some unexpected chords, though they understandably suffer somewhat from being at once too long and too short.

Towards the end of the book, Eikelboom makes a plea for expanding these reflections from the general rhythms of the world to the specific and contextual challenges that concern theologians and the Church today (226). Whether she has discovered a vast mountain of scintillating diamonds awaiting to be excavated by theologians, or whether she perhaps has discovered something slightly more modest than that, she has undoubtedly demonstrated that there is much more to be said about the rhythms at the intersection of creaturely and divine life. This is, indeed, an important, ambitious, and highly original book. I warmly recommend it for theologians and philosophers alike.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ragnar Misje Bergem is a postdoctoral fellow at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society in Oslo, Norway.

Date of Review: 
September 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lexi Eikelboom is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at John Wesley Honors College, Indiana Wesleyan University.

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