Death, Sex, and the Journey to Find Wisdom

The Theology of John Dunne, CSC

The work of University of Notre Dame’s Fr. John Dunne, CSC has operated as an oppositional springboard for some theologians over the years in the backdrop of contemporary theological interest in desire and its divine circulations. In Theology on the Way to Emmaus, for example, Nicholas Lash of blessed memory minces few words about what he calls Dunne’s “repeated usage of this favored metaphor” of completely “passing over” as a person into the world of the other—whether a text, a tradition, or an entire theological imagination—so as to come back to see one’s own familiar practices in a fresh new light. While calling Dunne’s there-and-back-again method “allusive and evocative,” Lash says that it also “makes no pretence to be a work of disciplined theoretical rigor” and finds it “underdeveloped, uninformative, and not particularly illuminating.” He then jokes that he went to read The Way of All the Earth to see if he could figure out what “passing over” could possibly mean from its index, only to find the page it referred him to blank.[1]

If Lash finds fault with Dunne’s metaphoric methodology, Graham Ward takes issue with his theological vision. Ward’s approach is to read Dunne’s first book The City of the Gods, which Ward summarizes as boiling all of the “manifestations of the city” that it encompasses as solutions to the problem of death.” Based on this summary, Ward claims that a “profound necrophilia permeates Dunne’s project, a necrophilia which is ultimately articulating a metaphysics of nihilism.”[2] Dunne for Ward, in other words, may as well be as much a death-of-God theologian as the poster-boy for that movement in the 1960s, Thomas Altizer.

What is interesting to me is that both Lash and Ward may have some distaste for Dunne’s writings, but they still have to deal with him. Dunne’s presence, in other words, cannot be ignored in theological discourse right at the turn of the twenty-first century. They also find different dimensions of Dunne’s work objectionable, for Lash the imprecision of “passing over and coming back” and for Ward a kind of morbid necrophilia, or so he claims. In this way, Dunne seems important enough to deal with for both of them, yet his work can also be reduced to a single theme and then discarded.

But are either “passing over and coming back” or a necrophilia-unto-the-death-of-God sufficient summations of the work of a figure whose presence in contemporary theology continues to be felt, even in opposition, in the shadows? I hope to show that it is not, that in fact, contra Lash, there is something substantive to “passing over and coming back” in Dunne, and that, contra Ward, The City of the Gods is hardly a death-of-God text. But this project calls for a broader framework to Dunne’s work. Instead of reducing his writing to a central concept, the framing I propose is based on how he writes about them working out in his own life, especially as he works through his approaches to the terror of being alone in the face of death in his autobiography A Journey with God in Time.

There is a passage there that strikes me as a beginning point for such an investigation. Writing of a time shortly after his doctoral studies in Rome with Bernard Lonergan, he says that it was “a time of encounter with other persons, particularly with a beautiful young woman of French origin—I remember her wearing a mantilla.” He writes that “this was first time in a long time my ‘eyes were opened,’ as in the story of Adam and Eve,” though he is careful to emphasize that “nothing happened, but it was the beginning of a new awareness for me.”[3] What I hope to show from across Dunne’s writings is that it is his encounters with women that have mediated what he calls “passing over and coming back,” attempts to meet the existential void of time through the medium of another person instead of in a direct and solitary way. He sustained this approach, I then show, until quite late in his life, when he discovered that treating women as human mediatrices to soothe his ontological solitude strained his friendships with some of them. It is then, I argue, that the final passing over occurs. He finds rest in Divine Wisdom herself, which he names “Ayasofya” in his late musical work. In this way, the ultimate arc of Dunne’s oeuvre is a journey over time where the mediatrices of one’s life are transcended, and the terror of death can be faced alone.

Passing Over and Coming Back

“It was love that was on my mind as I went to the Kennedy symposium in Washington, D.C.,” Dunne writes in his autobiography as he discusses the concept of “passing over and coming back,” “the love of a woman I had met when I was in California.”[4] In context, this is a strange admission. Dunne says this while writing about how he developed the method of “passing over and coming back” by reading Augustine’s Confessions and comparing the founding of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.[5]

But there are clues that the key to understanding “passing over and coming back” is not, say, apropos of Lash, in the index of a book. It is in Dunne’s relationship with the woman from California that the metaphor surfaces. In the immediate paragraph preceding this sudden interjection, he discusses his 1971 Yale lectures, collected as Time and Myth. The first two sections of the second lecture wax psychoanalytic, theorizing passing over and coming back “from the womb to the world outside, from home to school, from one school to another, from one dwelling place to another” as a journey of personal development.[6] This journey is interrupted in adolescence by a new numinous power. Dunne writes,

Sexuality, is not only fascinating but dreadful, it seems, for it is experienced as a terrible purpose at work in one’s life, a purpose that is not personal but somehow impersonal in its aims, a purpose that looks to the species rather than the individual, to the reproduction of one’s kind rather than to one’s personal development.[7]

Dunne says in his autobiography that, having gotten to this point in writing Time and Myth, he was himself interrupted—not by sex, but by mortality: “my father’s death and my bout with pneumonia.” They happened in rapid succession and left him bedridden.[8] From this experience came a profound sense of loneliness, one that contradicts the search for companionship. That was, he says, when he stumbled on what he calls “‘search for mediation’ in the eye of the other.”[9] Left without the other, one is not only alone, but one is faced with an unmediated encounter with the expanse of time.

The search for a mediator—someone to pass over into and then come back, so as to avoid facing time and mortality unmediated—may take a person into encounters with all kinds of persons. But women play an especially important role in Dunne’s thinking. There might be, he says, an encounter with “a person who falls in love with him, who will not merely mediate between him and time, merely be transparent for him, but loves and wishes to be loved by him in return.”[10] This meeting of love opens up a circle of relation: “A woman who loves him relates to his self but wants that self to relate back again to her own self; she says Yes to him but wants him to say Yes to her in return.”[11] Writing of this passage in another place in A Journey with God in Time, Dunne admits, “I believe I was thinking in this last of the woman I met in California.”[12] Such admissions, I suggest, are not extraneous to Dunne’s theological project. They are pointers to the latent argument of his first book, The City of the Gods, which is about the structural transformations of the relationships of men with goddesses.

The Secularization of the Goddesses

In The City of the Gods, the problem that Dunne deals with might be described as the secularization of ancient cities. This historical process, he shows, was a path to mystical wisdom, a process of passing over and coming back. What Ward detects of Dunne’s supposed necrophilia might be found, then, in Dunne’s attempt to re-read ancient Babylonian texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh and Egyptian myths about the underworld. There, Dunne argues that in ancient times, cities were sites where the kings were the consorts of goddesses. The king would sacrifice himself to mediate the goddess’s continual passing over into the world of the dead and coming back to life.

But Dunne is not calling for a return to this kind of city. Instead, he points to Gilgamesh as a radical rupture from this necrophilic conception of the city. The crucial scene for Dunne is where Ishtar presents herself to be Gilgamesh’s lover. Gilgamesh rejects her, refusing to mediate her journey of immortality. Infuriated, Ishtar initiates a chain of divine events that kills Gilgamesh’s best friend, Enkidu. That forces Gilgamesh to confront his own mortality. He then goes on a quest to seek the answer to how eternal life might be found. When he finds the secret, it is taken from him. In the end, he still has to die as a mortal. For Dunne, Gilgamesh’s refusal to be Ishtar’s consort is the first step on the road to secularization. In so doing, a conundrum is introduced. The king does not wish to die. And yet, someday he must.

Reflecting on the terror of the expanse of death is where the stirrings of wisdom lie. Meditating on the Odyssey, Dunne observes that Odysseus, like Gilgamesh, refuses to sleep with the divinities Calypso and Circe precisely because he is embracing his mortality. He is trying to get back to his human home with his woman wife; the mediatrix must be human, not divine. The Odyssey, then, develops the insight that what it means to be human is to die.

The struggle has become philosophical, and as Dunne then shows, it finds its ultimate secular incarnation in Athens, a city named for the goddess Athena, but that has nothing to do with achieving immortality anymore. It is instead a place where the mortal embrace of death is to be contemplated. It is indeed where Socrates dies, although he claims a kind of immortality for himself by saying that it is the deeds of a person that live forever in the city. But that transformation of the meaning of eternal life, for Dunne, is tantamount to giving up on the quest for immortality. Mediating lovers are human, wisdom is about accepting one’s mortality, and immortal aspirations lie only in one’s deeds.

The final step in the secularization process is, for Dunne, in Christian modernity and its post-Christian aftermath. Curiously, Dunne does not speak of women in these phases, not even of Aeneas’s Dido, Dante’s Beatrice, or Shakespeare’s witches and wives. But there is a reason for these omissions. Secularization, as I shall show next in Dunne’s own life, is a sophiological journey, a constant passing over and coming back in which man is forced to reckon with his mortality alone.

The end point of the path of life is the place where no mediation is necessary. That there is no mediatrix by the end of The City of the Gods is a foreshadowing what actually happens later in Dunne’s personal life. His woman friend breaks off the friendship, sundering the circle of continuous passage. He writes in his autobiography that that passing over to her and coming back to himself meant that he could never quite learn “detachment,” not “as long as I was like Crazy Horse ‘yearning for a woman he couldn’t have.’”[13] Dunne must face death alone, moving beyond human mediatrices.

But does he fall in love, then, with death? No, I claim. Instead, he has a personal reckoning with Holy Wisdom herself, the one beyond the mediatrix. This is not necrophilia. It is philosophia.

You Are in Love with Ayasofya

Late among the pilgrimages that Dunne made—the passings over and the comings back—were journeys to Istanbul. “I went on a journey to find wisdom,” he says in his autobiography, “this time to the historic shrine of Holy Wisdom, the Ayasofya in Istanbul.” Dunne insists on calling the place “Ayasofya,” he writes, because he wanted to use the “Turkish derivative from the Greek” as “personal name for the figure of Wisdom in the Bible. I called her Ayasofya and entered into an I and thou with her, even dedicating to her the book I afterwards wrote on the experience,” titled House of Wisdom.[14]

Recounting his repeated visits to the Hagia Sophia, Dunne recalls his Turkish friend Aksen making fun of him. “You are in love with Ayasofya,” she said to him, observing him going back to the place ten days in a row. The truth, Dunne suggests, may have been a little more complex. “‘Turn to life! God is in your heart!’ Aksen said to me when she learned of celibacy,” Dunne recounts. “She was not yet married herself and she thought I should contemplate marriage, also become a Muslim, and stay in Istanbul.”[15] The subtext is not subtle. “You are in love with Ayasofya” implies that Aksen thought that Dunne’s celibacy was a smokescreen for fending off a romance. He was already taken by another woman, Ayasofya in physical form as the Constantinopolitan church.

Is this “Ayasofya” a mediatrix? In Love’s Mind, Dunne struggles over this question. He cites the familiar mediatrices in literature, Dante’s Beatrice, Kafka’s longing for a woman, Lacan’s “real of desire.” “Is it the more concrete expression, ‘a woman for example,’” he muses, “or is it the more spiritual expression, like the figure of Wisdom, or is it a transformation of the one into the other, as the theme goes through the variations, like the figure of Beatrice?”[16]

And then, as Dunne puts it, there was a “sea-change.” Indeed, Dunne focuses on sea-changes as early as Time and Myth, referencing the scene in Shakespeare’s Tempest where the spirit Ariel suggests to the prince Ferdinand that his father, a villain who betrayed the master of the island where he has been shipwrecked, has drowned. Drowning, Dunne comments, is what passing over and coming back ultimately entails. It is like the “sea-change” of this drowned body into pearls. What appears to be death is transfiguration.

And so it was in Dunne’s relationship with Ayasofya. The friendship with the woman he loved had to die before he could move past seeing the women in his life, even Wisdom herself, as mediatrices. He recalls praying one night as he wandered “alone at night in Istanbul” and reflects that he “found myself praying to Holy Wisdom not to desert me, not to give me over to foolishness, to unseeing and unfeeling, to unloving.”[17] In his initial encounter with Ayasofya, he still sees her role in his life as mediating the passage over and coming back, just like in the friendship with the woman whom he loved.

But when that relationship is broken, he throws himself completely into music. Writing autobiographically about his book The Mystic Road of Love, he says that another friend told him that that old way of mediation was dead to him: “she quoted to me the passage in Deuteronomy, ‘You must never go back that way again.’”[18] The friend continues by explaining that the tell-tale sign that he has changed is that he began writing music. Indeed, he tells us that he began his musical explorations even when he was still enjoying a “spiritual friendship” with the woman friend who eventually broke off their relationship.[19] But alone, unmediated before the abyss, he found that music was the only way forward out of his existential terror. Facing time unmediated, he writes one song that dominates his song cycles. Titled “Ayasofya,” it is only one word sung over and over, “no words but the name itself,” as he describes it.[20]

Without a mediatrix, Dunne is forced to stare into the abyss of time and the darkness of death. He cannot go back to the mediation of women because he has been sea-changed. But Ayasofya is the name of Wisdom herself, the character of the ontological depth into which Dunne stares. She is not a mediatrix. She does not mediate reality. As he sings her name over and over, he learns that she is the real herself, the name of the abyss that is not only death, but life eternal.

Dunne’s Unmediated Participation in Wisdom

The place for Fr. John Dunne in contemporary theology lies in how he addresses himself to the perennial questions of desire and its mysterious manifestations in the world. Such moves anticipate, say, theologians who explore the erotics of the secular world in relation to the practices of love and communion in church communities.[21] Indeed, it is a particularly pressing project even in recent discourse about desire, misogyny, and what the black feminist Audre Lorde calls the fragility of the “man-child.”[22] How is a man to deal with existential terror in his journey in time? For Dunne, the answer lies in traversing the encounters of his own life, an arc that moves from his relationships with women to his unmediated encounter with Wisdom herself.

This process of journeying over time, of constantly passing over and coming back, reminds me of one of the last conversations I had with Dunne when I was on retreat in at the Holy Cross Center in Berkeley in 2009. He told me that his doctoral dissertation, written under Lonergan, was about soteriology. He dealt with two ways of viewing salvation, he said, and they were “substitution and participation.” He told me that Protestants like me at the time tended to emphasize that we were saved by “substitution,” that Jesus Christ is the mediator between us and God through his death on the cross, but Catholics usually emphasized the “participation,” that we participate in our own salvation in Christ. “I came away from that study,” he told me, “thinking it was a little bit of both, that there’s a little bit of substitution and a little bit of participation.”

It has only occurred to me recently, as I have passed over to Dunne’s relationship with women and come back to myself, that therein lies his entire theology. One cannot start, he is saying to me, with a participatory soteriology. Rather, one must start with the terror from which one desires to be saved, which is death itself and the time that indicates that it is nigh. The natural reaction, Dunne is saying, is to turn toward mediators for salvation. But in passing over through the mediator, one inevitably returns. No mediator is sufficient; in fact, if a man positions the woman he loves as a mediatrix, the friendship will break. But in returning, those depths do not appear as death anymore.

Ayasofya reveals herself as the reality once feared, the horizon of eternity that beckons for one to enter unmediated. Substitution then gives way to participation. Facing the time who is Wisdom directly, the cycle of passing over and coming back ceases, and salvation is accomplished.

[1] Nicholas Lash, Theology on the Road to Emmaus (London: SCM Press, 1986), 84.

[2] Graham Ward, Cities of God (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 45.

[3] John S. Dunne, A Journey with God in Time: A Spiritual Quest (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 37.

[4] Ibid, 52.

[5] Dunne writes about Augustine’s Confessions in A Search of God in Time and Memory (University of Notre Dame Press, 1969) and religious founding in The Way of All the Earth (University of Notre Dame Press, 1972).

[6] John S. Dunne, Time and Myth: A Meditation on Storytelling as an Exploration of Life and Death (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973), 54.

[7] Ibid, 60.

[8] Dunne, A Journey with God in Time, 59.

[9] Dunne, Time and Myth, 71.

[10] Ibid, 75.

[11] Ibid, 76.

[12] Dunne, A Journey with God in Time, 60.

[13] Ibid, 86.

[14] Dunne, A Journey with God in Time, 72-73.

[15] Ibid, 74.

[16] Ibid, 49.

[17] Dunne, A Journey with God in Time, 76-77.

[18] Ibid, 91.

[19] Ibid, 89.

[20] John S. Dunne, Love’s Mind: An Essay on Contemplative Life (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), 128.

[21] I think especially here of Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[22] See: Audre Lorde, ‘Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,’ in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossings Press, 1984), 72-80.

Featured Image: Photo by Myrabella, Empress Zoe Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia church, c. 11th century, photo taken on 8 November 2012; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Justin Tse

Justin Tse is Assistant Professor of Humanities (Education) in the Office of Core Curriculum and the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. He is working on the manuscript The Secular as Sheets of Scattered Sand: Cantonese Protestants and Pacific Secularities.

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