One of the joys of researching for my book on the body so far has been my encounter with Hans Jonas’ The Phenomenon of Life.

As the careful observer can tell from the title, Jonas offers a phenomenology–that is, examines our actual experience of the world–that captures the reality of bios, or life.  His contention is that contemporary theories have adopted an overly mechanical view of causation, and his goal is to revitalize the physical world without unduly spiritualizing it.

Along the way there are gems like this one:

For the sensation of hearing to come about the percipient is entirely dependent on something happening outside his control, and in hearing he is exposed to its happening.  All he can contribute to the situation is a state of attentive readiness for sounds to occur (except where he produces them himself).  He cannot let his eyes wander, as his eyes do, over a field of possible percepts, already present as a material for his attention, and focus them on the object chosen, but he has simply to wait for a sound to strike them:  he has no choice in the matter…In view of these characteristics we understand why for our ears we have nothing corresponding to the lids of our eyes.  One does not know when a sound may occur:  when it occurs it gives notice of an event in the environment and not merely of its permanent existence: and since an event, i.e., a change in the environment, may always be of vital import, ears have to be open always for this contingency.  To have them closed could be fatal, just as it would be useless to open them at arbitrarily chosen moments.  With all the initiative left to the outer world, the continency aspect of hearing is entirely one-sided and requires therefore continual readiness for perception.  The deepest reason for this basic contingency in the sense of hearing is the fact that it is related to event and not to existence, to becoming and not to being.  Thus hearing, bound to succession and not presenting a simultaneous coordinated manifold of objects, falls short of sight in respect of the freedom which it confers upon its possessor.

Jonas subordinates hearing below vision, and rightly so (I think).  As one professor pointed out, Scripture never opposes faith and reason, though it frequently opposes faith and vision.  But it is the Word of God that engenders faith, at least according to Paul.

Jonas’ point that hearing reveals our utter contingency, and that it is most properly tied to event, not being, underscores the importance of the public reading of Scripture.  It’s tempting to think of Barth at this point, but for him the event of the Word of God in Scripture and preaching wasn’t a phenomenological event.  It was an encounter deeper than our experience (at least in my limited understanding).

But there’s still value to reflecting about what role hearing plays in our relation to the world.  In that sense, our lack of control over our ability to hear the sounds around us, and our need to have our ears attentive so that we are prepared to hear the sound when it happens mirrors the actual proclamation of the Word of God that happens in Scripture and in his church.

When we lose this attentive openness to the world, the willingness to be acted upon by sounds which we do neither choose nor determine, we lose the ability to hear at all.  Jesus described such people as “having ears, but hearing not.”

The public reading of Scripture in the Church, then, is training for our ears.  To read Scripture publicly well, the people have to cultivate an attentive openness, an attentive openness that is crucial for being worked upon by the Word of God beneath our experience of the world.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Good stuff to take to heart Matthew. The Reformers were very keen on having the scriptures read aloud. I have often received great benefit from reading the scriptures aloud to myself, ie, engaging eyes, ears and mouth to receive the Word.

    I wonder a little bit about the professor’s statement that faith is not opposed to reason. It appears to me that is precisely the point of 1 Corinthians 1:18 thru the end of chapter 2. So, I suppose we need to differentiate “natural” reason and the reason that stems from the renewed mind. What are your thoughts?

    On “having ears and not hearing”… I understand this to highlight the danger of hearing with the natural (the ears) and not with the heart (in the Spirit). I suppose what you refer to as “attentive hearing” is the same as opening one’s heart to the Word of the LORD.

    I love all the similar works I have found on restoring the sense of awe in day to day goings on. Thanks for posting.



  2. I’ll let Matt explain his own view, but I don’t think that the end of 1 Cor. expresses the view that faith and reason are opposed. In that passage, Paul is concerned to criticize something that is contrasted with the transformative power of the gospel. He calls that something “wisdom” (sophia). But what’s that? Lots of ink has been spilled on this question, but we should note that simply calling something “wisdom” in the ancient world didn’t mean that the author thought it was truly wise. I sometimes try to make the point by saying that there’s an obvious difference in our language between a “wise guy” and a “wise person.” In the case of 1 Cor., I think it’s the former that Paul is criticizing. He is not endorsing wholesale rejection of the use of the God-given ability to reason.


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