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  • On Presence: Variations and Reflections
  • Stephen Vicchio
Ralph Harper. On Presence: Variations and Reflections. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. x + 132 pages.

On Presence first appeared from a small press in 1991 and won the esteemed Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion. It is, without doubt, the finest of Ralph Harper's thirteen books. In many ways, it is a conclusion, a tallying of the ways in which Harper found optimism and joy in life in the face of a modern world full of death, dread, longing, loss, and loneliness. Harper is often credited with bringing Existentialism to North America with his 1948 book, Existentialism: A Theory of Man. Indeed, many of the insights in this book have been gleaned from thinkers like Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, and Paul Tillich, to name a few.

Ralph Harper's On Presence is arranged in eight different essays, each one highlighting an aspect or an example of this central concept in Harper's writing and teaching. In the first essay, "Anonymous Presence," Harper calls presence "the most fundamental, although usually subliminal, experience of reality" (9). For Harper, presence is another name that philosophers give to ontology, the study of being. Harper suggests that in the twentieth century four philosophers—Martin Heidegger, Louis Lavelle, Paul Tillich, and Karl Rahner—have revived the study of being. What they have in common, Harper tells us, is that they at all times seem to suggest that being and God are interchangeable (10).

In the second of Harper's essays in On Presence he provides a meditation on two different approaches to being, chiefly related to the works of Martin Heidegger and Marcel Proust. In Heidegger, Harper finds the realization that it is a mystery that there is something, rather than nothing—an observation that Harper also finds in Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Proust, Harper explores the ways in which presence can be found in the senses, particularly in scents and music. Proust describes Swann's agony upon hearing a particular sonata after he suffers a great loss. Harper points out that Swann believes the musical motifs are "ideas from another world, another order" (34).

Harper's third and fourth essays in On Presence deal principally with how presence is communicated in the mysterious. He explicates this kind of presence by exploring what Augustine meant by the grande profundum, the "great deep," and by what Rudolf Otto meant by the "numinous experience." It is the kind of presence that only comes with what Paul Tillich called "the ground of being," as Harper points out. [End Page 1268]

Harper calls his fifth essay "Presence as Glory," and explicates the meaning of the word "glory" in Homer, in the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament. This essay displays the exegetical skills and the knowledge of ancient languages he regularly displayed from the pulpit of his country church in Monkton, Maryland. Turning to the rabbinic mystics, he discusses the glory of presence as seen in the Kabbala, where, Harper tells us, a human being's absence from the presence of God, a Deus absconditus, "is but a reflection of God's exile from God's self" (76). Harper further explicates presence as glory by quoting Gerald Manley Hopkins's observation that God is only half hidden, that that which is unconcealed is presence as glory (77). It is this form of presence, Harper says, that is related to what Hopkins means when he writes, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." In Harper's view, the presence of glory is the same as what traditional Christians think of as "the actions of the Holy Spirit" (77).

Harper calls his sixth essay "Living Presence." This form of presence is more related to the relationships between human beings than those between the sacred and the profane. Harper illustrates this relationship with a lyrical passage from The Magic Mountain, where Thomas Mann answers the question, "What is life?" by suggesting, "It is warmth" (103).

The seventh and penultimate essay of Harper's On Presence, called "Real Presence," begins with an allusion to the Roman Catholic tradition of the Eucharist, and the presence of the body of Jesus Christ within the communion wafer...


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