Effing the Ineffable

Existential Mumblings at the Limits of Language

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Wesley J. Wildman
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Our species is obsessed with trying to eff the ineffable—to limn the liminal, to conceive the inconceivable, to speak the unspeakable, to say the unsayable,” as Wesley Wildman writes at the beginning of the preface to Effing the Ineffable: Existential Mumblings at the Limits of Language (ix). In nine distinct essays, Wildman offers a comparative analysis of this effing in order to gain insight into the ineffable itself: “I’m tracing the ways we eff the ineffable partly in order to conjure and engage the ineffable itself, the God beyond the Gods of human imagination and social construction, the ultimate reality that transcends the complete emotional, cognitive, and moral grasp of any possible being” (x).

Through this tracing, Wildman provides nuanced insight into the bio-cultural roots of our meaning-making, pushing forward an empirically-based philosophical theology wherein the ultimate appears as something “emotionally complex, cognitively ineffable, and morally inassimilable” (216). Of particular note are the first chapter “Dreaming,” which offers an excellent introduction to what cognitive science and evolutionary psychology can, and cannot, tell us about religious belief, and the implications of these fields for thinking of anthropomorphic models of the divine; the sixth chapter, “Eclipsing,” which diagnoses the contradictions inherent to the liberal theological project, and offers a stunning analysis of the material conditions of both liberal Protestant theology and liberal Protestant communities; and the seventh chapter, “Loneliness,” which carefully and provocatively argues that loneliness is a virtue.

While these essays are written at a popular level (there are no footnotes, few parenthetical citations, and the prose is casual—the phrase “surfer dude” is used more than once) they assume a remarkably well-read audience, as Wildman often works at the level of examining entire traditions rather than offering close readings of texts. The scale of this work can be both illuminating and frustrating, one feels suddenly in possession of a map of the possibilities of speaking of ultimate reality, but with absolutely no ability to zoom in to the street level. This lack is felt most particularly when it comes to Wildman’s more contentious claims—for instance, in identifying why liberal theology failed to offer a substantial resistance to Nazis—where engagement with debates in the secondary literature would be welcome.  

Through it all, Wildman approaches his quest for the ultimate with an unusual amount of intellectual honesty, noting his own instincts and affective responses to various models of the divine, and attempting to speak at a meta-level as to why different models appeal to different people. To do this, Wildman dips in and out of subject positions, trying on different models—sympathetic and critical, in turn, to each. One has a clear sense in this text that models of the divine are always a response to particular theological and philosophical questions, asked in the first place by particular human beings.        

Yet, at times, this same approach slips into flippancy. What begins as a beautifully written and sensitive essay on speaking of ultimate reality in the face of suffering ends with a call “to love that which destroys even as it creates” (61); and Wildman greets our inability to give a definitive answer to the “Very Big Questions” as no cause for concern, since it allows room for scholars to drink and play (67–8). He ends the book on a similar note: “[e]ffing the ineffable is our inescapable fate. The treachery of such words, above all other words, is power—power to control and also power to liberate. So let us eff the ineffable, but with eyes wide open and a wry smile” (217).

Wildman’s playing, drinking, and effing with a smile seems a poor answer to the problem of suffering that he himself identifies so astutely. I wonder, too, about who can laugh at this pun: the world is composed of many who are F–ed, F–ed over, and reduced to their F–ability. Here, in particular, is where engaging with feminist theologians—who in Christianity have done so much of the work on God-talk—would have been helpful. The only women named in this text are Teresa of Avila and Rosemary Radford Ruether, each of whom are only briefly mentioned in a list of examples; no women show up in the index; and the only single-authored text by a woman in the eleven-page bibliography is Teresa’s The Interior Castle (1588). For scale, the author has three times as many bibliographic entries to his own previous work than he does to any work that involving a woman.

These limitations aside, Effing the Ineffable will be valuable for those working in the philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and theological method, all of whom will benefit from engaging with and learning from Wildman’s distinct brand of religious philosophy.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Erin Kidd is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University.



Date of Review: 
September 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wesley J. Wildman is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics at Boston University. His many books include Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future for the Philosophy of Religion andFidelity with Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century, both also published by SUNY Press.


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