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Partakers of the Divine: Contemplation and the Practice of Philosophy.

Jacob Holsinger
Sherman. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, iii + 283pp. $39

In this provocative and erudite study, Jacob Sherman seeks to recover ancient and

medieval Christian contemplative philosophy. In contrast to mainstream modern

philosophical methodologies, Christian contemplative philosophy integrates intellectual

theory with a rich praxis of contemplation, of theoria. Theoria involves delight and self-

transformation in the presence of the divine and includes the whole life of passionate

devotion, prayer, study, devotion, and charity. Contemplative philosophy affirms the

“adorative intellect,” the mutual transformation of both love and reason. As Nicholas of

Cusa declared in the 15th century, “The mind without love cannot understand; the mind

without intelligence cannot love" (p. 49). Ultimately, Sherman poses a deeply significant

question: Is such a holistic union of philosophy and contemplation, of thinking and

thanking, viable in our present philosophical and theological world? (pp. 32-33)

In the Introduction, Sherman traces the historical roots of contemplative

philosophy in both ancient pagan and Christian philosophy. Of crucial importance to his

analysis is the impact of the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection on

both the path and the goal of the contemplative mind. Following 2 Peter 1:4, ancient

church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Augustine

revolutionized the Platonic vision of ascent by acknowledging that theosis, or

participation in the divine nature, is possible only because of the transforming power of

divine Grace. In the words of Athanasius, “The Son of God became human in order that

we might become God” (p. 16). For Christian thinkers in this contemplative tradition, the
intellectual pursuit of wisdom, transformed and enriched by divine grace and

contemplative practices, is the culmination of the philosophical life, not its elimination.

In Chapter One, Sherman examines forms of contemporary philosophy of religion

that, for all their insight, fail to achieve the richness and depth of the contemplative

philosophical tradition. He considers, among other contributions, the work of the

analytic philosopher William Alston and that of the continental thinker Jean-Luc Marion.

While affirming Alston’s rigor and insight in defending the rationality of belief in God,

Sherman argues that Alston overlooks the role of contemplative practices in transforming

our most basic philosophical intuitions and beliefs. Sherman then offers a sensitive and

probing critique of the phenomenological theology of Marion. Unfortunately, given

Marion’s axiomatic conviction of the death of all metaphysics, his theology, “saturated”

with a mysticism of ineffability, lacks any coherent, even approximate language or clarity

with which to speak of or yearn to commune with a personal God. In their very different

ways, argues Sherman, Alston and Marion provide us with works of elegance and

brilliance that fail to understand the holistic nature of the adorative intellect and to

appreciate its superior philosophical potential.

By way of contrast, chapters Two and Three present two compelling examples of

contemplative philosophy, Anselm's Proslogion and Nicholas of Cusa's De Visione Dei.

Sherman argues brilliantly that the fundamental argumentum of the Proslogion is not

merely an intellectual construction that hinges on the much-debated ontological

argument. Essentially, it is a work of adoration that leads the reader through a process of

contemplative transformation whereby the whole person ascends to a God who is “greater

than can be thought” (pp. 86-89). Sherman’s reading does justice both to the rigor of
Anselm’s philosophical argumentation and to the spiritual complexity and richness of the

text as a whole. In Chapter Three, Sherman offers an equally fascinating and lucid

analysis of the nature of the adorative intellect in Nicholas of Cusa. Contrary to the

interpretation of Blumenberg, Sherman argues that Cusa successfully defends in De

Visione Dei the thesis that all knowledge, whether of creation or Creator, depends on a

loving intellect that comprehends all things in light of the beauty of the Creator. Sherman

shows convincingly that Cusa’s work is a performative text meant to lead the reader to an

apprehension of an iconic ontology in which all of creation participates in the divine


In his final chapter, Sherman returns to the underlying question of his whole

project: can the tradition of contemplative philosophy be resurrected in the current

intellectual world in which one's choice seems limited to either the arid intellectualism of

analytic philosophy of religion or the death-of-God school of theology, which is strong

on praxis but weak on substance. Here Sherman’s critique of the liberal (so Cupitt) and

postliberal (so Lindbeck) aversion to metaphysics is most perceptive. In declaring, in

effect, that it is the universal nature of the human condition that metaphysical thinking is

bankrupt, the anti-metaphysicians are hoist on their own petard: the world is such, so they

contend, that we cannot speak of the world as such

In this reviewer’s judgment, Sherman's study is a thought provoking and, indeed,

brilliant work of philosophical theology. I offer two minor criticisms of Sherman’s wide-

ranging analysis. First, in his criticism of Alston and other mid- to late 20th century

analytic philosophers of religion, Sherman overlooks important allies. In an academic

world that has in many corridors been hostile to the very idea of uniting faith and reason,
Christian analytic philosophers such as Alston, Plantinga, and Wolterstorff, to name just

a few important analytic Christian philosophers, have succeeded—one might even say,

miraculously—in getting Christian philosophy back on the table of professional

discourse. Their contributions should not be underestimated. My second criticism is of a

more sympathetic nature. Sherman has challenged his reader to take seriously the inter-

relationships of faith, reason, and love. He makes a convincing case that for the Christian

contemplative philosopher, “love itself is a way of knowing” (p. 49). A more in-depth

account, such as one finds in Augustine, of the ultimate inseparability of knowledge and

love would only strengthen his analysis. These criticisms, however, do not detract from

the overall merit and power of Sherman’s work. Any serious Christian thinker, from

advanced undergraduate to professor of philosophy or theology, has much to learn from

Partakers of the Divine. Indeed, for any thinker, Christian or non-Christian, who wishes

to understand what may well be the most profound tradition in Christian philosophical

thinking, this book is essential reading.

James R. Peters
The University of the South
Sewanee, TN