Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Article Review: “Toward a Liturgical Existenialism” by Joseph Rivera


In the article “Toward a Liturgical Existentialism,” Joseph Rivera from  attempts to “situate Christian spirituality in view of a post-Heideggerian world..”[1] Effectively, the purpose is to improve existentialist phenomenology by infusing Christian liturgical spirituality into it. In his paper, Rivera compares the existentialist philosophy of Heidegger with French theologian and philosopher Jean-Yves Lacoste. To do this, he compares the two philosophers on a number of subjects: the world, existence and eschatology, and existence and the topology of the cross.

Brief Summary

The thesis of Rivera’s argument is that Christians should embrace a liturgical existentialism ordered by St. Augustine’s idea of an “incarnate pilgrimage.”[2] This method is contrasted against Lacoste’s asceticism which seeks to withdraw from the world like a monastic because pilgrimage engages with the world and critiques it so that the incarnation does not remain merely an event but an ongoing reality through the Church. To make his argument, Rivera uses the theological basis of Lacoste to argue for a Christianized understanding of Heideggarian existentialism. After he makes that juxtaposition, he clarifies some of the nuances in Lacoste’s proposals as a permutation between St. John of the Cross and Heidegger. To conclude the article, Rivera argues for is incarnate pilgrimage against Lacoste’s cloistered asceticism.

Critical Interaction

Rivera holds two obvious presuppsotions. The first is a commitment to the basic tenants of Heideggarian existentialism which is seen throughout his paper as it undergirds all of his major points. The second is his commitment to Catholicism. In catholic theology, the incarnation

is not seen just as a singular event but as a continuing reality through both the Church (who live as the Body of Christ) and the Eucharist (where the Church partakes of the Body of Christ). It is out of these two commitments that he derives his goal: to improve the catholic Christian understanding and engagement of Heidegger’s teachings by using and improving the methodology of Lacoste.
Lacoste reappropriated Heidegger’s work to focus mainly on the existential dimension of the Christian’s life in the world by arguing for “liturgical reduction” with an emphasis on the “corporate community of believers” instead of the traditional existentialist angst.[3] The main way this occurs in Lacostian analysis is replacing anxiety associated with one’s death with the death of Christ on the Cross as the “existential mode of being-in-the-world.”[4] Rivera replaces Lacoste’s conclusion of a contemplative and ecclesial existence before God which entails a withdrawal from the world.[5]
Rivera attempts to correct the tendency of Lacoste to bracket the world off from the space of the ascetic. His problem is with the idea that that Lacoste’s liturgical reduction has no application for the Christian who is “in the world but not of it” (i.e. a lay person who has “secular” employment). The negative theology of Lacoste has trouble explaining the Incarnation resulting in a “Christological imbalange.”[6] This is where Rivera’s use of Augustine’s idea of pilgrimage is pertinent. Given its participation in the perpetual reality of the Incarnation, the Church cannot withdraw from the world and engage it. This is an impeccable argument that is consistent with orthodox Christianity. The Church is called to bring God to the world, functioning as a “royal Priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9).
The two main theological and biblical perspectives advocated by Rivera in his paper are Christian pilgrimage and eschatoligcal hope. Augustinian pilgrimage is summarized in St. Augustine’s work City of God when he says, “by grace he was a pilgrim below, and by grace he was a citizen above.”[7] This avoids the “escapism” of the monastery while engaging the world with redemption in mind. Eschatological hope is summarized in 1 Cor. 13:12 (NRSV) when St. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” It is the full realization of God in the world that transforms angst into hope that will be consummated and the completion of the pilgrimage.
It is hard to isolate any major weaknesses in Rivera’s argumentation. However, his biggest strength is in the divergence from Lacoste by staying true to Incarnational theology. Lacoste borders on Gnosticism when he argues that the world is an obstacle standing between humanity and God. Rivera stands in contrast to that by arguing for direct engagement with the world. It stands that in light of the Incarnation event (and subsequent ongoing Incarnations mentioned earlier), this is the proper praxis instead of withdrawel which is why the thesis of the article is proven.
Through his analysis, Rivera offers two points of application. The first is a basis for being in the world, also known as Christian living. The Christian should live in a way that brings God’s love to the world through any means they can. Lacoste’s view creates a dilemma for the Christian because they must choose secular or sacred but Rivera stays truer to the message of Christianity by arguing that they should transorm the secular into the sacred. The second is the eschatological hope. Christians should be anticipating the return of Christ as the ultimate resolution of their pilgramge and working to usher in the Kingdom of God.


In the end, it is clear Rivera builds a solid case for Augistinian pilgrimage. By doing so, he is able to engage Heidegger and Lacoste while maintaining a healthy theology based on the Incarnation and eschatology. While he showed te superiority of his methodology, Rivera leaves the reader with a few questions, mainly on the side of practicality. For example, he emphasizes the importance of engaging the world by bringing God’s love to it but he never gives a concrete explanation how that should be done. One is also forced to wonder how Augustinian theo-politics applies to Rivera’s thesis. That said, these issues are somewhat out of the scope of the paper so it makes sense for Rivera to remain silent on them. These topics would make for interesting future articles. 
Selected Bibliography

Rivera, Joseph. “Toward a Liturgical Existenialism.” New Blackfriars 94 (January 2013): 79-96.

[1] Joseph Rivera, “Toward a Liturgical Existentialism,” New Blackfriars 94 (January 2013), 79.

[2] Ibid., 95

[3] Ibid., 81-82

[4] Ibid., 82.

[5] Ibid., 83

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.


  1. Thanks for looking at my article! I hope it does not discourage you from reading Lacoste himself. You may enjoy my book on Michel Henry that just came out a few months ago.

    1. Don't worry, your article made me want to read Lacoste more. He's on my reading list. I'll get to him eventually. I'll add the Michel Henry book as well!

  2. Thanks for looking at my article! I hope it does not discourage you from reading Lacoste himself. You may enjoy my book on Michel Henry that just came out a few months ago.