THE ETHICS OF TIME: A PHENOMENOLOGY AND HERMENEUTICS OF CHANGE reviewed by Christopher Iacovetti

The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change                                        
John Panteleimon Manoussakis                                                                                                    
New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017
ethicsoftime

Father Manoussakis is, as William Desmond puts it in his endorsement of this book, a genuine thinker. By this I mean not merely that one encounters original insights and thought-provoking arguments in his writings, but more broadly that he displays an impressive and steady commitment, throughout the body of his work, to considering whatever subjects he addresses from as many angles as possible—often traversing disciplinary boundaries and subverting commonsense assumptions quite radically in the process. It is not often, after all, that one comes across an author willing to engage figures as diverse as Freud, Kierkegaard, Sophocles, and Maximus at length in the same book—particularly when the book in question is as carefully argued and thoughtfully organized as those by Manoussakis tend to be.

The Ethics of Time is, Manoussakis tells us, “in many ways” a sequel to his God after Metaphysics (2007). What connects these books to one another? At the very least, it seems fair to suggest that the two books share a common thematic basis in Chalcedonian christology. This is not to say that either of these books is christological, or even theological, in a straightforward sense. Manoussakis writes as a phenomenologist, and explicitly denies (at least in God after Metaphysics) that he intends to do otherwise. Even at a strictly philosophical level, however, the incarnation is central to both books. This is because, for Manoussakis (as for Augustine and Maximus), the story of the historical enfleshment of the Logos constitutes not only the crux of salvation history, but also a definitive vindication of creaturely existence over against its cultured Platonic and Manichaean despisers—a vindication replete with “scandalous” philosophical implications.

In God after Metaphysics, for example, we see some of these implications worked out in the domain of theological æsthetics. Manoussakis shows the frequently disparaged senses of sight, hearing, and (especially) touch to be not a series of obstacles standing in the way of divine presence, but rather the very avenues by which God gives Himself to phenomenal experience. The goal of the book is thus, in Manoussakis’ own words, “to disengage God from His metaphysical commitment to the sphere of transcendence (epekeina) by learning to recognize the ways He touches our immanence (entautha)—an Incarnational approach through and through” (p. 6).

A similar approach appears to be at work in The Ethics of Time. In this text Manoussakis’ goal is to offer a phenomenological defense of temporality and all that attends it (e.g., becoming, imperfection, history, and flesh—the very aspects of creaturely existence bemoaned by Manichaeans and Origenists of all stripes). To this end, and by means of the phenomenological method, Manoussakis defines time in teleological terms, indeed as “the means to participate in a process of perfection” (p. 25). Considered teleologically, time—as well as its outworking in history, “which was never for the Creator an afterthought” (p. 61)—is to be regarded not as the consequence of some pretemporal Fall, but rather as the instrument by which God has providentially chosen to form, perfect, and deify His creatures.

This conception of time leads Manoussakis to formulate a fascinating, and, to my knowledge, highly original, understanding of the relationship between good and evil. For if it is indeed the case that time is the means by which God perfects imperfect creatures, it would appear also to be the case that time itself constitutes a movement to good from evil, that is, an ethical movement. Manoussakis embraces this implication wholeheartedly: good and evil, he argues, can be understood only in temporal terms, indeed as temporal categories. To illustrate this point, Manoussakis adduces the example of Adam. In what does Adam’s sin consist? Precisely in demanding right now “what was promised to him anyway but in due time” (p. 60). Much the same is true of the prodigal in Luke 15, whose sin was precisely to insist upon receiving the right thing at the wrong time—or rather, to receive the right thing apart from the unfolding of time. As these cases illustrate, sin consists essentially in denying, in a Manichean-Origenist fashion, the goodness of time—i.e., in wanting to “bypass” the movement of time by prematurely receiving that for which one has not yet been temporally prepared. Sin is therefore, in its essence, a denigration of time rooted in pride (i.e., the tendency to deny one’s status as a temporal creature) and impatience (i.e., the tendency to demand a perfection that one hasn’t yet attained).

Fortunately, however, the movement of time is stronger than the sin which attempts vainly to resist it. For in the event that sin occurs, time functions redemptively as the instrument of “sin’s undoing” (p. 61). This can be seen, for example, in Augustine’s Confessions, where the passage of time is precisely what carves out a space for Augustine to reflect upon the sins of his youth. By reflecting on his sins in this retrospective manner, Augustine is enabled to recognize his sins as the sins that they are—and so to take a step beyond them, given that “an evil that judges itself as evil cannot do this but in the name of the good, by becoming good” (p. 76). Time thus opens up the interval within which confession, repentance, and forgiveness become possible. Evil can impatiently deny the movement of time, then, but never actually defeat it, for “left to itself—and to the unfolding of time—evil undoes itself by turning into its very opposite, by becoming recognized as good” (p. 76).

There is considerably more that could be said about the book’s central argument, but I’ll leave off here. It probably comes as no surprise, given the ambitious and wide-ranging scope of the book, that certain secondary lines of inquiry are opened by Manoussakis without being entirely resolved. In his discussion of original sin, for example, Manoussakis advances an intriguing interpretation of the doctrine that accords nicely with the broader argument of his book, but leaves the reader (or at least this reader) with several lingering questions regarding the moral culpability of human beings—both for their own sins and for the disfigured state of the world around them. Manoussakis is clearly aware of such questions, yet he deals with them, in the present discussion, only in a somewhat cursory manner.

There are, I suspect, two reasons that he chooses to do so (and that he does the same in certain other cases). The first is that Manoussakis assumes a substantial deal of background knowledge on the part of his readers, knowledge which would render elaborate answers to many such questions superfluous. The second, more important reason is that Manoussakis is ultimately writing a phenomenological ethics—and not, say, a treatise on original sin. Manoussakis’ eclectic mode of argument makes it frequently easy to forget that his various excursions into theology, art, and psychoanalysis are really, in the end, just that: excursions, undertaken not for their own sake but in the service of the book’s overarching argument. Seen in this light, Manoussakis’ failure to exhaustively address every question raised by these excursions is not a fault on his part so much as it is a necessary limitation of his project. My only suggestion, in this regard, would perhaps have been that Manoussakis keep his readers more continually mindful of this fact by closing each of his chapters with an explicit recapitulation of its argument and its place in the book as a whole (as he did, quite helpfully, in God after Metaphysics).

All things considered, The Ethics of Time is a book that reaches considerably farther and accomplishes immensely more than most others do, and remains accessible enough to be read by specialists and committed non-specialists alike. I recommend it highly to all those interested in phenomenology, theology, ethics, and patristics. 

Christopher Iacovetti is an MA student in theology at the University of Chicago, with research interests in Russian sophiology and continental philosophy. He has presented theological research in numerous academic contexts, and has articles upcoming in Pro Ecclesia and Modern Theology. He was received into the Orthodox Church in January 2014.