Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s “Thinking Otherwise” attempts to defend the formation of a politics based on transcendence, or more specifically, thaumazein, in the face of both totalizing religious discourse and base secular immanentism. She dutifully notes the dangers of basing a politics on transcendence; such as fears of totalitarian governments or other-worldly politics. Although somewhat appreciative of Radical Orthodoxy, Rubenstein also offers a standard-issue critique of RO, claiming that the proponents thereof might really want to turn the whole world into High Anglo-Catholics.

Charting a course between the Scylla and Charbybdis of a militant secularism and totalizing religious vision, Rubenstein proffers what she regards as a true sense of transcendence; a transcendence that truly transcends and propels us into unknown territory. RO’s sense of transcendence, by contrast, is in truth no transcendence at all because it secretly harbors the conviction that “all things shall be well” or at the root of being itself is good. Instead, we need to recover a “pseduo-Heideggerian” sense of thaumazein. Wonder and authentic transcendence are powerful political tools because they expose the world to the sense that things can always be otherwise.  And herein lies the politics of wonder:

“wonder neither allows us to claim access to a fixed order no one else can see nor to remain content tinkering with a patently broken set of ethico-political configurations. Rather, to put it in totally ordinary terms, wonder reveals that the way things are need not be the way things are. And it could be just this sort of denaturalization that might allow us to begin to think the secular—otherwise.”

Surely Rubenstein is right to note the importance of transcendence for creating the possibilities of a  liberating politics. But the vision of transcendence offered by Rubenstein seem to be less about transcendence as such and more about some vagary having to do with the “unknown.” A bit of irony is lost on Rubenstein’s argument, I think, in that the transcendence she offers is the very transcendence offered by the culture industry, or what Adorno referred to as “the jargon of authenticity.” An idealized form is created, utterly devoid of content. Occluded then are the real material relations between peoples, industries and economies. In effect, the transcendent unknown becomes hypostasied – the the actuality of real history is effectively banished to some abstract realm. Isn’t this the very secularism that Rubenstein derides?

Despite Rubenstein protestations, I think RO offers a more authentic and liberating sense of transcendence, and one that might even evade the criticism of Adorno and company. Transcendence for RO is not some idealized formless mass hovering in some hinterland, but the very pull of the good as Plato taught. In this sense, transcendence is less about the unknown and more about mystery. Ascesis and trainings in virtue help us to realize the actuality of the good here and now (vs. it being locked ‘out there’). Through continued argument and innovation, we can approach the objective good of which we all somehow mysteriously participate; not in an attempt to grasp and control, but to be pulled beyond ourselves into something objectively better.

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