Expanding the Guest List: On Sounding Funny and Seeming Smart

Invitation 2***Presented at the Greenville Business Magazine‘s “Best and Brightest Under 35” Award Event

 

 

 

Good evening. Let me start with a rather common feature of conversations at networking events such as this.

While gathering together in a fancy room, wearing fancy clothes, and drinking mediocre wine, but commenting on its surprisingly good quality to your host, one often either tells a joke in order to sound funny, or starts name-dropping in order to seem smart.

So, let’s begin with a joke and work our way to name-dropping.

Here is a joke I used to tell in high school: “Two penguins get into an elevator. The first penguin looks at the second penguin and squirts ketchup on him. Now covered in ketchup, the second penguin looks at the first one and says: ‘what do I look like, a rock?!”

If you don’t get it, then don’t worry—it isn’t supposed to be funny. In fact, it isn’t even a joke. When I was in high school we used to tell a lot of jokes like this that weren’t funny just to see if we could make other people, usually freshman, laugh – at which point the actual joke was on them and we would crack up at their willingness to try to fit in and be cool by laughing at a joke that simply wasn’t.

This joke makes no sense, and yet, there in the difficult halls of the social pressure cooker that is public high school, the freshman would begin laughing simply out of their desire to be “in on the joke.” The really sad thing is that by trying to be in on the joke, they were definitely not in with us—instead they were the object of our laughter, rather than the friend with whom we laughed.

I am not sure why we did such things—and I regret them greatly. But, I learned a lot (in retrospect) from having done them.

On the one hand, I learned that those without power will usually do almost anything to be accepted by those who have it.

On the other hand, I learned that those with power will usually do almost anything to make other people want to be like them.

Once I began to realize these things, I decided that the price of being “cool” was too high. It typically came at the cost of being mean.

So, for the last year of high school and during my time in college, my best friend and I committed ourselves to finding ways to be friends with folks who would likely never be cool.

Anyway, although there were moments of social exclusion that resulted from our decision (it turns out that turning down a bid to the “cool” fraternity, because lots of your supposedly uncool friends would never be invited to be part of it, doesn’t immediately propel you to collegiate stardom). However, after the initial scorn from those who couldn’t fathom that someone didn’t want to be like them in every possible way, a remarkable thing kept happening. Soon those who felt that I had shunned them returned to seeing me as the guy who they had wanted to be part of their group in the first place. Yet, because I chose to hang out with the folks who the cool kids didn’t even acknowledge, I wasn’t viewed as uncool, but instead remarkably my uncool friends started to be accepted as cool, simply because they were my friends.

Let’s call this phenomenon “cool by association.” Being cool by association can be both virtuous and vicious—it all depends on the direction of intentionality. If you intentionally try to use your social capital to create spaces for others to gain standing, it is virtuous. If you intentionally try to be associated with the cool people in order to gain standing for yourself, it is vicious.

Since I realize that I have now failed to sound funny, let’s get to some name dropping so that maybe I will sound smart.

In the attempt to explain this virtuous notion of being cool by association, let me give two examples of it. Try not to be intimidated by the sophistication of my philosophical examples here.

Ok, first, let’s look to the notion of difference as developed in the deconstructive phenomenology of the Algerian Jewish thinker, Jacques Derrida. No, I am just kidding. See, I am getting funnier . . .

Instead, let’s look at some lyrics to the song “Cool Kids” by Echosmith:

“She sees them walking in a straight line,
That’s not really her style
And they all got the same heartbeat
But hers is falling behind
Nothing in this world could
Ever bring them down
Yeah, they’re invincible, and she’s just in the background
And she says

I wish that I could be like the cool kids
‘Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in
I wish that I could be like the cool kids”

Here is the question: Are you the sort of person who invites others to feel cool for being themselves, or to feel the need to change in order to become cool like you?

As a second example of being virtuously cool by association, let’s turn to the great philosophical duo, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Since you are all young(ish), you probably remember their huge hit, “Thrift Shop.” Because this song was a big favorite of the sororities holding meetings in my office building during spring rush a few years ago, I actually can’t hear the song without hearing “wooo” every few lines. Anyway, in that song, Macklemore details his proclivities to go thrift shopping as a way of inverting social expectations. My favorite line in the song is when he says, “I could take some Pro Wings, make them cool, sell those. The sneaker heads be like, “ah, he got the velcros.”

Here, Macklemore ruptures our conception of coolness. It is not something dictated by others, such that one “fits in” with them, but instead something that happens when you become your own normative standard. Notice that he did not buy what the other kids said was cool, instead he bought what he liked and “made them cool.” No longer is he understanding himself according to what “they” say, but instead “they” now understand what is desirable because of his decision—in fact, this happens to such an extent that even the denizens of sneaker nobility were even impressed by his style.

Hitting on this same basic point, the jazz trumpeter Winton Marsalis once said in an interview that his goal was not to live, but to live with style!

Are you the sort of person who lives according to the style of others, or the sort of person who opens spaces for others to find their own style? Are you more interested in being perceived as cool, or in changing the perception of those who would normally be ignored?

Now, I understand that many of you are probably wondering why I would be asking such questions to a room of people who have accomplished so much. Isn’t it obvious that you are all the sorts of folks who should stand as examples to everyone else? Very probably. But, I know that in my own life when I feel the most accomplished, I fight the greatest temptation to believe my own hype. I am sure that you are all more virtuous than I am, but just in case you are not quite part of the heavenly choir of angels just yet, maybe you, like me, need to be reminded that we should take what we do seriously, but never take ourselves seriously while doing it.

Living well is not ultimately about being remembered, but about helping others to remember to live well.

Ok, well now having told jokes and dropped some names, let me now drop some names in a joke:

One night, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the comedian Andy Kaufman, the rapper Ol Dirty Bastard, the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, and the philosopher Simone Weil all walked into a bar. Watching from a distance, Nabi Tajima then came along and ducked under it.

Yeah, this joke isn’t all that funny either—it is better than penguins in an elevator though, right? But, here is the point. Mozart, Kaufman, Ol Dirty Bastard, Charlie Parker, and Simone Weil all died before reaching the age of 36. Alternatively, at 117 years young, Nabi Tajima is currently the oldest living human on earth.

How many of you had heard of Nabi Tajima?

I admit that I had to google the oldest person alive to discover her name.

Yet, all the other names are part of my basic sense of the world: these people literary opened up spaces in which I have come to understand what counts as funny, as beautiful, as profound, and in the case of Ol Dirty Bastard . . . what is bizarre and compelling at precisely the same time.

Nonetheless, they lived lives that invite us to live ours. As Socrates notes, “the most important thing is not life, but the good life.”

When you remember that it is not all about you, you become the sort of person worthy of the world being about. So, I ask you, are you living a life that will be remembered because you are cool, or because you let others become cool in light of the fact that you lived?

I wrestle with this question every day as I stand in front of the best and the brightest students in the country and challenge them to graduate from college as more than simply prepared for the “real world.” I invite them to graduate ready to undertake the task of figuring out what world should be real?

In other words, I encourage them to see college as a place where they learn to breathe deep while living on purpose. See, if all we do is breathe deep, we will eventually hyperventilate. If we forget to breathe while we are living, we will suffocate.

Yes, I wish you all long life, let’s blow past 117 years, but more importantly, I wish you a good life.

You are all already successful, but don’t ever lose sight of the price potentially paid for such success. Being cool is fun, but it also often causes us to be mean. Are you cool enough to be kind and, in the process, change what cool means for others? Oh, and go find yourself some Velcro Pro Wings while you are at it!

When I was invited to give this talk tonight, I was told that I had 10 minutes to say something inspiring. I am not sure that I have done that very well and I am probably a couple minutes past my time limit. Sigh. But, what I have tried to do is give you some encouragement to breathe without hyperventilating and to live without suffocating. To that end, here are three challenges I give myself daily:

  • Find ways to be funny in order to set others at ease.
  • Find ways to be smart so that you do not settle for answers that are too easy.
  • Find ways to be profound because life demands depth.

But do all of this in order that you invite others to find themselves.

Congratulations on being recognized tonight for the amazing things you have accomplished so early in life, but don’t get deceived about the point of living.

  • May your lives be good not because you were better than everyone else, but because you were good enough to help others be better.
  • May you invite others to laugh with you because you are not the sort of person who laughs at others.
  • May you be considered cool not so that you can be invited to the right parties, but so that you can expand the guest list.

Thank you.

Advertisements

Too Tired to Go to Heaven?


tired

Presented to Mere Christianity Fellowship, Furman University, September 14, 2017
The live video of this talk is available on my Facebook page. 

I want to begin with two disclaimers.

First, I am extremely public about my own Christian identity, or my attempt to become a Christian as Kierkegaard would say. But, that said, I am very skittish about speaking in confessional ways at academic institutions. My rationale for this is that I take the task of being a philosopher to require appealing to evidential authorities that are available, in principle, to all members of the philosophical community. But, here I am going to risk speaking as a Kierkegaardian “poor existing individual” rather than as a professor of philosophy. I beg your forgiveness for this, but hopefully it will remind us all that no matter how many degrees we get, life doesn’t get easier, although we might learn, as Jacques Derrida says, “to live, finally.”

Second, I fully intended to write a full-throated academic essay that would wow you with its rhetorical flourish and argumentative rigor. But, like most things in life, a funny thing happened on the way—well in this case, it is not so funny. I want you to hear my comments as less of a philosophical essay and more of a confessional invitation to think together for just a few minutes. Please don’t hear any of this as a lecture or confuse what I am doing now with what I do in my classes. This is me trying to figure out what it means for me to live as a Christian in a world that has made Christianity largely unlivable. My struggle may not be yours. And that is fine. Tonight, then, please call me Aaron. This is my name. Dr. is my title. Nothing of what follows is licensed by my graduate studies or my publications. But, ultimately Kierkegaard is right that all that is truly essential has to be learned for oneself. It can’t be handed over as completed by another.

So, let’s get started. Thinking well takes time.

My maternal grandmother was a preacher and toward the end of her life she called me and said: “Honey, I am simply too tired to go to heaven.” Her words deeply troubled me at the time, I mean how could my grandmother the icon of Christian witness in my life, say such a thing?

For my grandmother, surviving the early death of one of her children, the progressive blindness and eventual early death of her husband of over 50 years, and a range of longstanding health issues later in her life, perhaps the common phrase “rest in peace” literally described her state of mind. Here is how I have worked things out—having spent her life in the church, perhaps she realized that if heaven is anything the contemporary church, maybe she didn’t really want any more of it. It seems to me that her point was simply that life, and especially Christian life in the contemporary church, eventually weighs heavy upon us and sometimes rather than desiring more life, we simply desire a break. As Tennyson rightly noted in his poem, “Ulysses,” we are often “made weak by time and fate.” Though we may desire to be those noble souls that Tennyson describes as striving, seeking, finding, and not yielding, sometimes we may just need a nap.

Sadly, I have personally come to identify with such a view as a result of no less than three churches in recent years telling me that I need to find a different home for my family because I was a problem to their church. Look, I am sure that the pastors at those churches would offer a different narrative about what they were trying to do, but as I see it, too many contemporary churches function according to a conception of Christianity that is more about a market-driven logic of solidifying support for a determinate authority structure—and the ideological cultural framing that underlies it—than about living into the “costly grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (puts it, that is provided in the kenotic example of God in Christ.

So, let me offer an admission, a confession if you will. I am tired of Christianity, well by what Christianity is usually taken to mean within the generally Evangelical churches in which I have been raised. Elsewhere I have detailed some of the philosophical stakes of what I take to be going on in those churches (I am happy to provide those essays to anyone who is interested), but tonight, I want to do something different. I want to try to tell a story about two possible Christianities, one economic and one existential, and the way that C.S. Lewis stands as a profound resource for the second version precisely because he is so often taken to be a spokesperson for the first. Ultimately, we will see that what my grandmother was on to, and that many of us don’t pay enough attention to in our own lives, is that if Christianity is understood as a thing that is meant to overcome the human condition, then we are right to tire of it because being a Christian eventually amounts to the task of our becoming God, rather than our figuring out what it means to live fully in light of God’s becoming human. Whereas Economic Christianity requires that we stay on the hamster wheel of trying to be good enough for God’s grace by being better than everyone else around us, Existential Christianity invites us into a relationship with God that St. Augustine correctly described as providing “rest” for a weary soul.

I don’t want to spend too long on Economic Christianity because I take it to be a rather easy notion to understand. On this model, Christianity is like a divine ledger book whereby God keeps track (sort of like Santa Claus) of those who are morally upright and rewards them with temporal blessing and eternal happiness. The characteristics of this version are moral clarity, theological triumphalism, and social stability (despite persistent claims of social exclusion). When Christianity becomes economically understood, faith becomes one’s payment for an eventual return on the investment. God pays us back, as it were, for resisting the world and those who are not part of our ecclesial community—think “culture wars” here or “battles over worldview,” etc.

Ironically, such separatist intuitions are strikingly at odds with the deep complicity that Economic Christianity has with the power structures of worldly recognition. Critique is unwelcome in Economic Christianity because there is too much to lose financially, politically, socially, and morally. This, by the way, is what I very regrettably think underlies those pastors’ worries about my influence on their congregants. For Economic Christianity, confidence is only had in light of certainty about morality, God, identity, national exceptionalism, and public policy. Faith is, thus, ultimately presented as a way of being complacent with oneself and one’s church, while becoming increasingly angry about the failures of everyone else. But, this makes sense because if Christianity is about an exchange function of faith for grace, as it were, then the desire not to be corrupted by those outside one’s own community is sort of like making sure that your property is safe for your kids and your dog. Economic Christianity is about putting up fences, rather than offering hospitality to those without homes. Yet, it is a fragile safety indeed that is brought about by the need to live with loaded guns. And, sigh, I wish I were only speaking metaphorically about fences and guns. God help us.

C.S. Lewis certainly doesn’t seem like someone who would give much solace to Economic Christians, but he has become something of a patron saint to them. The clarity of his prose, the confidence of his argumentation, and the rationalism of his conclusions (at least in some books) can seem to invite the idea that Christians are those who know the Truth (always with a capital-T) and fight against the rampant falsity proclaimed by those who deny the absolute moral law. Mere Christianity, in particular, is a book that often leans in such directions. When he claims that Jesus “never talked vague, idealistic gas,” for example, this can be read as seeming to support the moral clarity affirmed by Economic Christians. When he talks about the Christian demand to “be perfect,” he can appear to be suggesting that Christians are simply better than non-Christians. The apologetic gestures in this book and in books such as The Problem of Pain and Miracles, for example, are comforting to those who need to beat back those who would threaten our children (and our dogs?) with their dangerous liberal views of God, the Bible, and, you know, of women, immigrants, and Muslims. Yet, I think that this reading of Lewis, though not entirely implausible, is staggeringly short-sighted and flat-footed. If we read Lewis in light of Existential Christianity, however, a remarkably vivid new picture emerges not only of his work, but of the potential to use his work as a critical resource for disrupting the hegemony of the Economic framework.

Let’s think, then, about what Existential Christianity might offer as an alternative model of God and human selfhood.

As I was writing this very sentence, I stopped to check Facebook (yeah, I know), and there I saw pictures of friends of mine from college who just gave birth to their son today. Strikingly, the pictures are of a proud mom and dad holding their newborn. But, here is the thing, their son died in the womb. Surgically removed at 1lb 14oz, and 13 inches long, his birthday of September 13th at 9:39am is also the date of his passing. I cannot fathom what it would be like to lose a child (like my grandmother and my friends both have). But, loss is part of life. To be human is to suffer. Fine, but what cuts me to the core is not that my friends are experiencing this loss, as unimaginable and purely traumatic as it is, but that on their post that includes pictures of them holding their son they wrote this (which are lyrics taken from the song “Though You slay me” by Shane and Shane):

“Though You slay me, yet I will praise You. Though You take from me, I will bless Your name. Though You ruin me, still I will worship. Sing a song to the One who is all I need.”

This wrecks me. How does one hold onto God when it seems so clear that God is no longer holding on to you?

A bunch of years ago, I was suffering from a very severe mold allergy and it resulted in extreme anxiety, depression, and even dissociative tendencies. It was horrifying. I remember giving a talk during that time and in it I said that I felt so very far from God—not due to sin or failure on my part, but simply due to the fact that God seemed nowhere to be found. Shakespeare describes this sort of situation well when he speaks of his tendency to “trouble deaf heaven with bootless cries.” Of course, one does not need to go to Shakespeare to find such frustration with God’s seeming coldness or apathy toward the human situation. The Bible itself is full of the cries of people calling out in agony and asking “how long, O Lord?” During that talk, during my own struggle to hold on to the slimmest shard of reality, I played this song for the audience. Let me have you listen to it since I think it encapsulates Existential Christianity: Ginny Owens, “If You Want Me To”

Though I am a bit hesitant about the seeming theodicy present in Owens’s account of God’s desire to have us go through the valley—I tend to think that it is simply a fact that there are valley, the theological question is whether we walk through them alone or not. It is that last verse of hers, though, that gets me every time. What you may not know about Ginny Owens is that she is blind, like my grandfather was. So, when she says “I will go through the darkness if you want me to. Cause when I cross over Jordan, I’m gonna sing, gonna shout. Gonna look into your eyes and see you never let me down,” somehow she thanks God for her very affliction. How does she find the strength to do this? How do my friends find the energy to worship a God who would seem to will their ruin?

When I wrestle with these persistent questions, I find all attempts to offer philosophical theodicies to fall infinitely, and offensively, short of the reality of the human condition. What does speak to me, however, is the testimony of those who found faith not simply despite affliction, but perhaps as deepened precisely by it. Consider the following from Simone Weil who suffered so greatly from physical ailment that it is amazing she was able to write at all.

“Affliction causes God to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final . . . . The man to whom such a thing occurs . . . quivers like a butterfly pinned alive to a tray. But throughout the horror he can go on wanting to love. There is no impossibility in that, no obstacle, one could almost say no difficulty. Because no pain, however great, up to the point of losing consciousness, touches that part of the soul which consents to a right orientation.”

Weil has a way of getting right to the heart of the matter with such gritty and vivid descriptions that it is as if affliction becomes an embodied performance playing out in front of us. In light of these words, we might reasonably conclude that either we are better than God or that there is no God at all. Yet, this is not where Weil leaves us. Instead, she concludes:

“The man who has known pure joy if only for a moment, and who has therefore tasted the flavor of the world’s beauty . . . for him it is no punishment; it is God himself holding his hand and pressing it rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God.”

Weil goes on to say that “it is always possible for an afflicted man to suffer less by consenting to become wicked.” Or as Emmanuel Levinas puts it, “because we are afraid to become noble souls, we became base souls instead.” What Weil demonstrates is that the only faithful response to the trauma of the human condition is to stand firm, to stand unyielding, as Tennyson says, in the joy and beauty and love that one finds affliction to be a moment of divine silence, and an opportunity to live in light of God’s own human example.

Absent from Weil’s formulation is any patronizing notion of needing suffering in order to appreciate the good in life. Instead, we find a glorious commitment to faith as risk directed toward the idea that love matters. That we gain our souls in patience. That life is not about escaping living, but living fully in light of what life involves.

Existential Christianity’s postmodern saints have inspired me because they do not try to get God off the hook for the misery so frequently found in human existence. Instead, they understand God as the depth that surrounds us as we fear drowning. The point is not to embrace suffering or to desire affliction, but to refuse to give affliction the last word. Theologians from Marguerite Porete to Jean-Luc Marion have all rightly noted that “Love” is the proper theological name for God. So, when we stand committed to love in the face of affliction, the joy that overflows logic and language sings into the void left by the “groans and utterings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Consider another postmodern saint. Facing his own death at the hands of the National Socialists that he worked to withstand, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cries out to God “Seize me and hold me! My staff is sinking; O faithful God, prepare my grave.” Which sounds a lot like some of the lyrics to the Rich Mullins song, “Hold me, Jesus,” which state:

“Hold me, Jesus, cause I’m shaking like a leaf, you have been king of my glory, won’t you be my prince of peace.”

God as the prince of peace is what I think my grandmother longed for in her weary final days. God as the one who “prepares our graves” is what I imagine that my friends are clinging to as they prepare for the funeral of their son who will never take a breath, open his eyes, or experience either the joy or the affliction of the human condition.

Where is God in any of this? Well, I don’t know. And yet I hope, I trust, I risk myself on the proposition that God is there-with us, not telling us that it will be ok, but holding on ever more firmly to our shaking hands. The point here is that when Christianity is understood as presented by Weil, Owens, Bonhoeffer, Mullins, and so many others, it is not a matter of triumphing over affliction by obtaining worldly status, which would amount to escaping the human condition. Rather, it is a matter of understanding the human condition as not something God allows us to escape, but instead something into which God throws us ever more deeply. As my own philosophical mentor wrote upon receiving the diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, which would soon after take his life, “in the end there is the unmanageable, but we would be trivial beings without it.” God did not make us trivial. The joys and the affliction are both significant because they are where we find ourselves longing for a God who doesn’t seem so deaf. And yet, they are also where God finds us as the sorts of beings for whom existence matters. Christianity is not, in the end, about escaping life, but living ever more fully. Indeed, life “more abundantly” is not likely to look very much like life if it was devoid of what makes life non-trivial.

Existential Christianity offers a model whereby God is best understood as trouble. Trouble for our complacency, for our expectations, for our assumptions, for our arrogance, for our very ideas of God. When God becomes present enough to cause us to become silent, and also when God’s seeming silence causes us to cry out, we find ourselves as made in the image of God. This is not a perfectionist Christianity, whereby Christians are separate from the fallen world, but instead a Christianity that perfects us by leaving us precisely where we are, but not as we were. Having been transformed for service, we can say with Bonhoeffer that at the point when God becomes trouble, then “Christ is no longer [merely] an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world.”

According to Existential Christianity, Christian faith is ultimately, as Kierkegaard says “a task for a lifetime” and defined by self-denial, rather than the self-exaltation that accompanies Economic Christianity. Rather than moral clarity, we have deep and persistent ambiguity—as Bonhoeffer says (contra Luther), “We can always do otherwise.” Or as Ginny Owens says, “the pathway is broken, the signs are unclear.” Ultimately, there is nothing obvious about “what Jesus would do.” Instead, almost everything that the religious leaders thought that God would do was laid to rest in light of the disruptive person of Christ. Rather than power, we find a servant. Rather than triumph, we find humility. Rather than militarism, we find grace. Rather than riches, we find an invitation to give everything to the poor. This is far from a God who reinforces our own sense of self—and our political, economic, and social ideologies.

C.S. Lewis stands as a model of Existential Christianity, however, when he rejects what he terms “Christianity-and-water.” This is Lewis’s version of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.” Christianity-and-water wants the heavenly blessings without the demands of self-denial. At the end of Mere Christianity, Lewis notes that “There must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak.” Notice here the abandonment of his typical rationalism and self-possession. Ultimately, Lewis recognizes that Christianity is not about getting us out of the human condition, but of making us better as people. He goes on to say that the “first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self . . . will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him.” Set your eyes on Christ, as it were, and you will find yourself. Reinforce your own status and you will not only lose Jesus but also yourself even while gaining financial power and political influence.  This Lewis calling for self-denial is the Lewis who eventually realizes that the theodicies of The Problem of Pain must give way to the agony of A Grief Observed. The difference between these two books is simply this: one attends to a logic, the other attends to life. One was written from the speculative position of the professor, the other was written from the engaged perspective of the lover.

When read as an Existential Christian, Lewis is not about getting us out of the world and off to Narnia, whether during the time of the White Witch or of the Last Battle. Instead, he is now about showing us that heaven is not ultimately about going someplace else, but as he demonstrates in The Great Divorce, it is about receiving the fullness of the world itself. Lewis understands that God is trouble when he notes that “Aslan is not a tame lion”—as if we could domesticate the divine and make it suit our purposes. And yet, he goes on to state that nonetheless, Aslan is “good.” Here we see the existential trust that defines the risk with direction that is faith itself.

My grandmother was too tired to go to heaven, but what I really think was the case is that she was too tired of Economic Christianity. But, by admitting of her exhaustion, of her need for rest, she modeled for me the humility and vulnerability of Existential Christianity and gave me the strength to try to live into it. Her greatest testimony, so far as I see it, was not that she lived faithful to God, but that her faith did not eliminate her weary humanity—joy and love continue.

C.S. Lewis is too important to let his legacy and message be defined by Economic Christians. It is entirely appropriate that we get tired as Christians, but when we tire of Christianity itself, it is likely that we are no longer seeking God and finding ourselves, but that we have lost ourselves in the attempt to find God as the self that we wish we were.

The unmanageable remains, but so does God (I hope). We can always do otherwise, and that is why decisions matter (I trust). God is often too silent for us, but we are often too loud to hear God (risk continues). By reclaiming Lewis’s legacy as an invitation to Existential Christianity, rather than viewing it as the apologetic voice for Economic Christianity, we leave open the possibility that we can all be “surprised by Joy.”

Open to such surprise while continuing to walk through the valley. Here we stand within the human condition, but where else could we possibly be? My grandmother may have been too tired for heaven, but one other thing she told me in her last few years was how convicted she felt for sitting around praying that God would go ahead and take her home. Eventually, she called me and said “well, I think God is telling me that he is not through with me yet, so I need to get busy living so long as I am alive.” Echoing Ginny Owns, my grandmother realized that in her 80s that she was still called to live in joy despite affliction and to find God where she is, because that is always where God finds her.

My mom always said that it is important not to “grow weary in well-doing.” I wish that for myself, my son, and for all of you. This week is unlikely to be a week of joy for my friends as they bury their child, but as we pray that God holds us, we must also help each other appreciate the deep theological insight of Tennyson’s encouragement “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

 

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1967. Letters and Papers from Prison, Revised Edition. Ed. Eberhard Bethge. New York, NY: The Macmilan Company.

Derrida, Jacques. 2007. Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview (with Jean Birnbaum). Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1983. Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1989. The Levinas Reader. Ed. Seán Hand. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell.

Lewis, C.S. 1980. Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Owens, Ginny. 2006. “If You Want Me To.” On the album If You Want Me To: The Best of Ginny Owens. Rocketown Records. Lyrics available at: http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/ginny_owens/if_you_want_me_to_live_version-lyrics-156957.html. Accessed September 14, 2017.

Shane and Shane. 2013. “Though You Slay Me.” On the album Bring Your Nothing. Fair Trade Services. Lyrics available at: http://www.lyricshall.com/lyrics/Shane+And+Shane/Though+You+Slay+Me/. Accessed September 14, 2017.

Shakespeare, William. n.d. “Sonnet 29.” Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45090/sonnet-29-when-in-disgrace-with-fortune-and-mens-eyes. Accessed September 14, 2017.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. n.d. “Ulysses.” Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses. Accessed September 14, 2017.

Weil, Simone. 1977. The Simone Weil Reader. Ed. George A. Panichas. New York, NY: David McKay Company.

Can we still do philosophy?

Written by J. Aaron Simmons
(Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University)

chained-gate

In the first Saturday Night Life episode after 9/11, Lorne Michaels asked then mayor Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” With four words, Michaels got to the core of all the existential realties of the situation and the difficulty of living after tragedy.

Of course, I do not see the events of this past week to be a tragedy in the same sense as 9/11, but they might lead to very real tragedies in the lives of many, many people. We will see.

Nonetheless, the question I keep asking myself is, “Can we still do philosophy?” It seems that there are many other, and much more important things to do. But, C.S. Lewis rightly notes in the essay called “Learning in Wartime,” which he wrote in the midst of WWII, it is in the midst of existential threat that doing good intellectual work is more important than ever because it reminds us that what we are fighting for is worth the effort. We must keep building the world that is at risk of being turned to ruins.

In agreement with Lewis, then, I offer the following.

I often tell my students that I write in order to figure out what I think about things. So, let me make clear at the outset that I am still working through where I am on where we all find ourselves. I keep thinking that maybe the other night when I was watching the election results until 4am, that I just lapsed into a really bizarre dream and just haven’t woken up yet.

If only . . . but, here I am.

I am awake and thinking well matters and the luxury of delaying one’s thoughts until things “calm down,” is one that I don’t think remains an option.

In the past few days I have had terrified students come to me in tears to express their existential concern about their own future due to their immigration status, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. That this is the case demands a response from everyone, but especially those of us who because of our position as professors are the ones to whom some people look for answers—we spend our life thinking about things for a living, don’t we? Surely we have a response that is helpful, right?

Again, if only . . . but here we are.

There are a variety of possible responses that are all reasonable and maybe even helpful, but whatever else we do, we should at least respond by thinking well with them about where we find ourselves. But, what makes things so difficult is that, in the current context, I struggle to see how in doing so I am not literally a performance of what has been shown to be untrue within our social and political reality.

See, I stand in front of my students every single day and tell them that critical thinking, a concern for truth, being well-spoken, reflective, intentional, hermeneutically charitable, and ethically motivated is what real education is all about. This is why I celebrate liberal arts education in the first place: the point is not to train people for jobs, but to invite them into meaningful life—a life that will still be difficult and full of both joys and miseries, but a life that they will hopefully have the strength to live, and to live fully.

David Foster Wallace once said in an interview that one of the benefits of education is being able to be articulate about your frustration, your hopes, and your failures. He is right. This benefit is not simply an esoteric, or theoretical, meta-ability to offer a post-colonial-critical-theoretic-non-onto-theological-socio-political-Deleuzian-etc interpretation of your situation, but instead the real, concrete, no shit ability to own up to the complexity of the situations in which we find ourselves. It is what allows us to avoid the temptation toward assuming that questions are useless because answers are obvious. It is this idea that has motivated my career, my life, my faith, and my identity.

Yet, here I stand in front of my students who may just see it all as a big (albeit eloquent) lie.

Ultimately, this week may have shown that only power matters, money is status, hate is more motivating than love, and cultivating fear generates social action more effectively than building coalitions around tenuous and fragile points of common values. Accordingly, the liberal experiment about critical social discourse, mutual respect for divergent views, and the shared hope for some sort of political solution to pressing social problems is now on life support—and, it very well might die.

Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, but here we are.

So, how do I stand in front of them and keep teaching them that philosophy is worth their time and their energy when this situation in which might not only makes right, but verbal abuse just counts as good argument? How do I explain to them that to engage in argumentum ad hominem is actually a fallacy rather than a good political strategy? How do I weep with them without also shedding tears for the manifest irrelevance of the very conversation of humankind that has for so long been what invites us to cry, laugh, love, and rage in the first place?

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we might ask what good is philosophy amidst these who confuse being offensive with provoking reflection, who mistake vulgarity with a critique of political correctness, who flaunt ignorance as a productive challenge to the “liberal elitism” of the universities? As Whitman puts it: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”

To be honest, I am not sure. It may be that the simple answer is just that philosophy is worth precious little.

But what if that little remains precious, nonetheless?

Must we throw up our hands, shrug and keep weeping? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that Whitman gives us a good suggestion for a better response: “That you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.

I am here, and so are you. Life exists. Identity exists.

While I have breath, I will speak—God help me to speak words of life that foster identities in others who are then able to contribute their own verses.

So, here I am. Weeping at moments. Raging at others. But through it all trying to find the words to say such that my contribution to this play might matter such that it doesn’t turn tragedy into nothing other than a farce.

Here, then, is what I have found myself leaning on in order to be able to be someone upon whom my students can lean. I am not sure if any of this actually restores truth about that which now seems to be a lie to so many of them, but as the small stool in my grandparents’ bathroom said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I am a philosopher and so philosophy is what I can do. I will stake my claim that what seems to have been shown to be the case over this past week is not, finally, true. This is a moment in which truth is, itself, at stake. So, all I have, I give to you so that you might have a little more left to give. Philosophy matters now, more than ever, because it is, here and now, at stake more than before.

Cynicism is cheap grace—it allows us to excuse our own apathy. Costly grace is always costly because it requires us to risk ourselves. Aware of the risk, then, here are three thoughts keep me going and keep me committed to thinking well even when those in power have abandoned such a commitment:

First: Democracy matters more than those who are empowered within a democracy. There will always be individual leaders and there will always be those who are marginalized within a social structure. Yet, what democracy is about is not voting practices, but a commitment to the idea of critique being possible all the way down. Rightness is never assured because of one’s position. Truth is never guaranteed because of one’s status. This is the fundamental democratic opposition to authoritarianism. This is the reason that democracy requires that justice recognize that we are never democratic enough. There is always more work to be done. So we keep working.

It is important to keep in mind that marginalization occurs even when we are attempting to include the marginalized. Martin Heidegger’s account of truth such that every unconcealing is also a concealing is a helpful framework for understanding that to stand with a particular group is always going to be perceived as standing against some other group. This is what we liberals have too often forgotten. When we fight for the rights, voices, and status of the oppressed, which we should!, we tend to ignore that someone else feels (whether rightly or not) to have had their rights restricted, their voices silenced, and their status threatened. I do not want to equivocate here between those who have no social status and those who, because of their traditional status, feel entitled to have even more, but a sensitivity to the complexity of experiential context is important.

My point is not that we need to find a way to be more charitable to those who are not charitable. Nor do I mean to suggest that there can be a society without exclusion. Rather, I am saying that we all (whether liberal or conservative) can do better at realizing that our own identities are not necessarily the hallmark for the identities of others. To forget this is to foster the very sort of resentment that festers into hate and then translates to violence. We are all responsible for where we now find ourselves.

Presidents matter, but democracy matters more. It matters more because it is what allows us to understand why Presidents matter. It matters more because it is what allows us to continue to be right about our very moral commitments to inclusion and critique. It matters more because it is what allows us to have the institutional structures that facilitate speaking up against injustice (whether real or perceived) in the name of our own experience, while always aware that our experience is not total.

Second: Critique is a mode of caring about others, but dismissal is not. This is important because marginalization is not a one-way street. Had the election turned out differently, there would still have been half of the voting populace that feels unheard. It is difficult to own up to the fact that both the working-class rust-belt white worker who may have voted differently than I did, and also the undocumented immigrant in my church who was not able to vote at all, demand my concern and my attention. It is frustrating to live into the realization that my community, my neighbors include both the Bentley-driving white family who thinks that the United States is really “their country,” and also the Muslim refugees who have literally lost everything in the attempt to come here in order to save their children. Of course I realize that I am setting up extreme dichotomies because unless we own up to the extremes, we are likely to avoid trying to understand what is at stake between them. As Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas both show us, when we try to restrict who counts as our “neighbor” to those who we are most comfortable with (whether the members of the country club or the facilities staff at the country club who can’t afford to be members), we miss the moral insistence of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

That said, it is easy to rest complacently in the postmodern logic of theoretical superiority, but difficult to enact the entailments of Jacques Derrida’s claim that “tout autre est tout autre,” and that a democracy must be hospitable even to the enemies of democracy. It is not for nothing that he also notes that a democracy worth its name would be a “Christian democracy” because the virtue of loving your enemy must be enacted within democracies as a social practice. This is very, very hard work. I am not sure I am up to it on most days. But, I do know that it matters that I try to be.

When I work to care about others, I must not give in to the temptation to conclude that this requires me to shut down my critical engagement with them (and the views that they hold). Indeed, one of the truly regrettable aspects of the postmodern philosophical world in which I work is that it sometimes gives the impression that everything is interpretation, except for our interpretation, which is fact about the interpretations of those who don’t agree with us. This can’t be right.

Postmodernism is worth defending because it throws us all back on our hermeneutic decisions. We are all in this together, but that doesn’t mean that everything is equal or that just anything goes. Rather, when we understand the moral imperative of democracy itself, as ultimately rooted in neighbor-love instead of self-interest, then we can better appreciate that it is patronizing to “tolerate” everyone’s views, rather than lovingly taking their views seriously enough to allow them to be worth refuting or adopting. Standing with those who are marginalized by those in power does not require standing for what they consider to be true.

Third: There is a time for anger, but it is important to think really, really well about when that time is. There is a real risk in expending one’s emotional and psychological energies in trying actually to fight a rhetorical war. The danger is that by taking to the streets merely in opposition to the potential policies that might come, you galvanize the opposition’s resolve to enact those very policies. Anger rarely breeds charitable responses from those at whom one is yelling. And yet, there is a contrasting real risk that in waiting to take to the streets until actual policies occur, you can make it seem like it is ok for such policies to be enacted. The question is not about what one ought to speak up and speak out, but rather how to know when and how to do so?

I refuse to be the person who didn’t stand against oppression because I happened to be among those not being oppressed. I refuse to be the person who waits so long to get involved that involvement has become a futile exercise in self-congratulatory moral superiority. It is kind of like waiting to see how bad the hurricane gets before deciding whether or not to evacuate. By the time you realize that you need to leave, it is now too late to do so. Alternatively, however, there are also real consequences to leaving just on the rumor that a hurricane might be developing far out to sea. The goal has got to be to live such that we are prepared to leave at any moment, and yet attentive enough to be able to use good judgment about when to get in the car.

Part of me wants to march in solidarity with those taking to the streets. Part of me wants to applaud Elizabeth Warren for being willing to work within the democratic structures to bring about justice even if it might mean working with the people who seem so often willfully to refuse to see the faces of the victims of injustice (or at least some of them). I do not know how to reconcile these two parts of myself.

If only . . .

I have not yet figured out how to move forward, but I know that we must not judge too quickly those who already have moved forward in ways that raise for us genuine concerns. There are always genuine concerns that attend any movement in any direction. So, I will keep doing philosophy and be ready to march. But, in marching, we must not stop doing philosophy, and in doing philosophy we must realize that we are continuing to build the world for which we march.

Kierkegaard was right to say that life must be lived forward but understood backwards. None of us know what is going to happen tomorrow, much less over the next four years. Yet, we have to live into tomorrow and every day after that with boldness tempered by humility.

May we have the humility to be so bold.

From a Sigh to a Self: On Phenomenology and Vocation

***Originally presented at the Cothran Center Conversations on Vocation – Furman University, Fall 2016. 

call-for-help

So, I do not like Drake. I think he is a mediocre rapper (if we can call him that since he does more off-key, auto-tuned singing than rapping these days) and generally bad for the art form of hip hop. I am not entirely sure what bothers me so much about him—probably a combination of things—but I know that his recent hit “Hotline Bling” does not help his case. Let’s listen to some of the wisdom that he presents therein:

“You used to call me on the cell phone, late night when you need my love. I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing.”

Sigh.

Ok, well, I take seriously the idea presented by Leo Tolstoy that we should be actively aware of the “wisdom of children” that can sometimes be missed in our very adult way of being—which too often just means being serious and boring with a good dash of egoism thrown in (but usually this adultness is characterized simply as “acting like a professional”).

Again, sigh.

But, perhaps, Drake can tell us something if we are maximally charitable to his “childlike” wisdom—of course usually he is a child of about 15 who has just discovered how cool sex and money are. Anyway, here is my thought: Drake actually does an excellent job of presenting a reductio ad absurdum regarding the idea of vocation. In other words, he shows us how we should not understand the idea of a call.

We will come back to Drake in a bit, but first, in order to think about my own “vocational story,” I want to think about what it means to respond to a call.

A call is always phenomenologically distinctive in three ways:

  1. It calls to someone. Even if anonymous in its origin, it is never anonymous in its reception.
  2. It always comes from somewhere; though it is an open question whether it must come from someone.
  3. It calls for something. It is not declarative, but inquisitive.

We might understand these three characteristics as Ethico-religious, Ontological, and Epistemic, respectively.

The philosopher Jean-Louis Chretien writes a lot about the idea of a call and he argues that the call is never possible without a response. Indeed, he goes so far as suggesting that the call is only ever heard in the response itself. The phone rings, we might say, only when we decide either to pick it up or to ignore it. A ringing phone without such a response is not a call, but merely a sound. It becomes a call when the response is given in one way or another.

Look, I know that this will sound weird—how can we respond to something if it doesn’t exist prior to our response. The call comes first, only then can we respond, right!?

Well, think about it, calls are distinguished from questions precisely along this phenomenological line. When we ask a question, the answer is not what constitutes the question as a question (indeed, merely the grammatical mark of a curly thing with a dot under it does it—or at least in English with the raising of one’s voice). Well, at least that is the way that it seems. Alternatively, calls are not obviously that. They are calls only when we respond, when we constitute them as calls by treating them as such.

Ok, I can see that a bunch of you are now thinking: yep, this is why I am majoring in Health Sciences (wasn’t Dr. Slining’s talk great?). But, just for a few minutes, suspend your general annoyance with the way that philosophers think about things and, instead, realize that sometimes it is only when we look at things in ways that most other folks don’t that we begin to see what we and they usually miss. Or at least this is what I want to propose to you tonight.

We will see whether this turns out to have been a call to you—it will all depend on how you respond.

The point is that a call occurs in its being interpreted as a call. Said a bit sexier, we could claim that a call is never without a contextual framing. It is not hermeneutically transparent. Instead, it is always dependent on the decisions of the respondent. Importantly, not just anything can count as a response. For example, we don’t get to ask “will I respond?” – for to ask that is already to have responded such that the call has been heard as calling-for a response. Instead, we can only ask “how will I respond?”

Calls are often missed when we confuse them for questions. We often simply attempt to “answer” the call. In this way, the call merely becomes a self-standing question, rather than the call putting you into question as a self.

See, the funny thing about a call is that it is always calls us to selfhood. Think about it. What is the first thing that you say when you answer a phone (well, at least prior to caller ID)? “Hello, this is Aaron.” “Aaron Simmons speaking.” “Aaron Simmons, how can I help you.” We literally identify ourselves as the one to whom the call has been offered. Without such identification, think about how weird calls would be:

“Hello?”

“Hey!”

“What are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know yet. What about you?”

“It kinda depends on how much homework I have”

“Oh yeah.”

“Yeah”

“Why is that?”

“Well, because my Philosophy professor is crazy and expects us to read like 100 pages of Levinas tonight.”

“Seriously.”
“Yep.”
“Come on, Josh, just drop that course already?”

“Hunh?”

“Isn’t this Josh?”

“No, this is Kate.”

“Crap.”

click

Notice that even in this call and response, what eventually gives context to the entire conversation—its meaning maker, if you will—is the moment of self-identification. Without that moment, the entire thing is ultimately silly. Think about it. Why is it that when we dial the wrong number we apologize to the person? Why not simply say, “Hey, it is great to meet you. If you live in Greenville do you want to do something tonight?” Of course, the reason we don’t is quite clear: we don’t know who the caller is and so are unable to make sense of ourselves in response. Indeed, this is why we can see that even if the caller is anonymous, when we answer we tend to be the ones who have to say who we are to see if the caller intended to call us or not.

So, calls not only call to someone, they call us to be someone.

Further, calls are always from somewhere. Their status as a call might depend on the response, but after having responded, then the call is seen to have preceded us. It is like the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, says: “Life is to be lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Often, we spend a lot of time worrying about the source of the call because it tells us not only a lot about the caller, but it also helps us to understand the appropriate decision that we should make in response. Is it my mom calling? Is it my ex? Is it my next? (is that a thing?)

Let’s do a bit of philosophy: Perhaps the call to selfhood comes from God? Perhaps the call comes simply from some anonymous force of existence itself? Does it matter if we decide one way or another? Well, here I am on shaky ground because if the call is only ever understood in the response, then we have to pick up the phone before we know who is calling. But, I do think it matters that we take a stand on what or who is calling.

The deep stuff about who we are is connected most decidedly to what or who we name as that which calls us to ourselves. Yet, what someone believes matters. At the most basic level, what you believe about the source of your call to selfhood determines how you make sense of the status of yourself and others. The stakes are high indeed.

The idea is that ideas have consequences and what we believe underlies what we do. But, this runs in reverse too. Actions give rise to ideas and what we do facilitates what beliefs we can take seriously as options. The point is that when we understand ourselves as responses to a call, we have work to do figuring out what/who calls and how we decide will in many ways form the interpretive frame in which we then interpret ourselves.

T.S. Eliot said that he had to “put on the faces to meet the faces he would meet.” This is the challenge before all of us. Whether you take yourself to stand before God, an all pervasive life-force, or the anonymous void, you do stand before something.

The call comes to us from somewhere—or so we should choose to believe. Otherwise, if there is no call, then we run the risk of there being no task of selfhood. We simply are. I am an existentialist, but I think Sartre was wrong about how he chose to make sense of himself and the source of freedom. He might be right, but it matters that we move in different directions. It takes courage to stand somewhere.

Although I disagree with Sartre about the caller, I agree with him about the importance of standing on the idea that we have to make the most of what has been made of us. In other words, “we are who we are becoming.” Our subjectivity is a task that requires us to live truly as we care about believing truly. To give up on truth is to give up on ourselves.

The call comes to someone, from somewhere, and is always calling for something.

Ah, so here is the difficult part (as if ethics and ontology were not hard enough!). How do we know what the call says? What if you pick up the phone and the person speaking is using a language you do not understand? Que faites-vous alors? What if the person speaking is using words you understand but in ways you don’t? Wal-mart is pretty in the evening time after caterpillars march through cell phones.

See, the hermeneutic task returns! We not only decide to respond, not only do we decide what or who calls, but also we have to decide what the call says.

Let’s put this all in language that your parents will understand:

What are you going to do with your life?

Your parents will far too often hear this as a question. Moreover, they will usually think that this question should be met with an answer in relation to a job. But, this misses the point. Jobs matter, but only because they are specific ways in which we live out how we have chosen to hear the call to ourselves. When we think that we are called to a job, then we stop being selves and become employees.

So, will you hear “What are you going to do with your life?” as a call or merely as a question? If it is the former, which I hope it is for you, then the point is that there may not be any precise answer. Instead, there is only decision, and then more decision. But, and this is really, really cool: once the decision is made, then you get to see why it turns out to have been the right or wrong response and you move on from there.

We are who we are becoming.

We live forwards and understand backwards.

I realize that this is not exactly what you probably expected me to say tonight. But, I was asked to give my vocational story, and this is it. It is all about owning up to the decision to be someone who I liked being and then to do stuff that helped me to continue in this task.

The specifics are just that, specific to my case. I started as a physics major, but thought my professor was ugly and so went to Europe and fell in love with art and ideas, came back and went to graduate school to watch FSU football (another sigh) with the hope that I would become a professor so I could spend my summers fishing, but along the way discovered that the questions that kept me up at night were questions worth spending my life asking—philosophy let me do this so I became a philosopher. Here I am.

I could have chosen differently and things would have been ok—that is what I think too many students forget. My path is mine. Your path is yours. Don’t let your parents, your friends, your professors, or your pastors tell you what the right path is.

Only when you choose for yourself can you, then, and always after the fact, realize that the question was indeed a call that defined your life. Then you can see that what you thought was a term-paper was really an invitation to a different identity. That joining that group was actually the turning point in everything that followed. That sometimes just not being busy is the key to being properly directed toward what matters for you and your life.

My vocational story is a story about my becoming, but it is still ongoing. I am still working on it. I have not yet finished the story and so I am still trying to figure out whether some questions that I am trying to answer will turn out to have been calls. We will see.

So, let’s get back to the childlike wisdom of Drake.

You thought I would forget, hunh!

“I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing.”

Notice that for Drake, everything is clear from the outset. There is no reason to pick up the phone because we already know who is calling, what they want, and who they want to speak to. In this way, Drake reduces the call to not much more than a sigh.

It’s him again.

Sigh.

It’s her again.

Sigh.

But, what if we realize that when that hotline bling, it never, ever, only means one thing. It all depends on what you decide to believe about who is calling, what they want, and how you will respond.

When we stop being overwhelmed by questions, we might begin to hear calls.

It’s him, again! – Who am I?

It’s her, again! – What should I do?

When we let the call call us, then we might begin to see that the really, really great callers are those that are not immediately identified because the lack of clarity invites us into relationship.

When we let the call call us, then we might begin to see that the really, really great calls are those that remain a bit perplexing because the mystery invites us to dig deeper.

Henry David Thoreau said that in order to go for a walk, you have to be willing to get lost. I think he is right.

A former professor of mine who was only a few years older than me died this week after a very long battle with cancer. In an email when he first got diagnosed with “stage 4 cancer” and given only a few months to live, he wrote to me and said “In the end there is the unmanageable but we would trivial beings without it. So, onward with my day.”

My vocational story is simply this: I did the best I could to make the best decision with the information that I had at the time, but the unmanageable persists. And then I did that again, and again, and again.

Somewhere along the way, my sigh at knowing that the call could only mean one thing, turned into a self whereby there are always more options.

I have enjoyed the walk, though on some days it is easier to say “onward with my day” than on others.

The important thing is to keep walking. To keep responding.

Come walk with me. Or, perhaps even better, let’s dance. But, please, please don’t do whatever it is that Drake is doing.

 

 

“Mashup Philosophy of Religion” – Special Issue of the JCRT

The Special Issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory that I edited on the idea of “Mashup Philosophy of Religion” is now available. It contains essays by:

  • Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • J. Aaron Simmons
  • J.L. Schellenberg
  • Martin Shuster
  • Martin Kavka
  • Nathan R.B. Loewen
  • Timothy D. Knepper
  • N.N. Trakakis
  • Christina M. Gschwandtner
  • A.G. Holdier
  • Christy Flanagan-Feddon
  • Markus Weidler
  • Jack Mulder Jr.
  • Michael R. Kelly
  • John Greco
  • Scott F. Aikin
  • Paul K. Moser
  • Kevin Schilbrack

On Postmodern Epistemology: A Rejoinder to Ed Hackett

By J. Aaron Simmons

Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

I would like to begin this short rejoinder to Ed Hackett’s critique of my notion of postmodern kataphaticism by thanking him for his time and energy in responding to my short essay.  What follows is not at all intended to be conclusive, but simply one more move in a conversation that I hope will continue between Hackett and I, and many others, about the possibilities of determinate religion in a postmodern context.

Hackett worries that postmodern kataphaticism might face problems of inconsistency (expressed as a “conceptual tension”) when it comes to the “seemingly traditional notions of truth” that appear to underlie my proposal.  As a positive suggestion, Hackett offers William James’s pragmatic approach to truth as a model that would allow for a postmodern framework and also for determinate truth claims about God. The key difference between “seemingly traditional notions of truth” and a pragmatic approach to truth, Hackett indicates, is the way in which the pragmatist is not concerned with achieving correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs, say, but instead attempts to investigate the practical consequences to one’s existence of holding a particular belief. The epistemic criterion would then be subjective lived-experience rather than an external truth-maker.

Hackett’s worry about a possible inconsistency within postmodern kataphaticism is a serious one, but ultimately no such inconsistency obtains. As I have argued elsewhere regarding the possibility of a postmodern apologetics (Simmons 2012), postmodernism entails far less than Hackett suggests. According to Hackett, though, postmodernism is defined by two “higher-ordered commitments”: “anti-foundationalism and the death of meta-narratives.” Even if he is right about such commitments, it is not obvious how we should understand them.

First, “foundationalism” is not a singular thing. There many different foundationalisms. Even if postmodernism rejects classical foundationalism, whereby justification is achieved only by way of incorrigibility and self-evidence, say, that does not mean that postmodernism rejects all forms of foundationalism as an understanding of the structure of belief and justification. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere (Simmons 2008, chap. 11) that some postmodernists, such as Derrida and Levinas, can quite consistently be read (and perhaps should be read) as displaying a foundationalism of a particular sort: namely, a “modest,” “minimal,” “fallibilist,” or “weak” foundationalism in line with the epistemological work of such thinkers as Scott Aikin (2005), William Alston (1989), Robert Audi (2001), or Nicholas Rescher (2003). Now, that does not mean that postmodernists must be modest foundationalists. There are good reasons to think that the coherence theory of Keith Lehrer, the foundherentism of Susan Haack, or the infinitism of Peter Klein, as just three examples, are all plausible justificatory strategies available to postmodernists. Indeed, Scott Aikin and I have argued that Levinas, especially, is an important resource for debates concerning epistemic infinitism (Simmons and Aikin 2012). That said, it doesn’t work simply to say that postmodernism is anti-foundationalist. We have to make clear which postmodernists and what version of foundationalism we are talking about.

Second, to say that postmodernism affirms the death of meta-narratives is an ambiguous claim. On the one hand, it can be read as an epistemic thesis: since humans cannot get outside of their lived contexts, it is unlikely that metanarratives are going to be the best way of making sense of reality. On the other hand, it can be read as a metaphysical thesis: meta-narratives are false because there is no state of affairs that could be properly described by them. As I see it, the metaphysical thesis assumes the epistemic thesis, but in doing so it faces other problems. Namely, while the metaphysical thesis is certainly possible, it seems also to forget its own commitment to epistemic perspectivalism. Simply put, where would one stand to claim that reality is not available for meta-narratival description? This is my point in the earlier essay about the Kierkegaardian claim that even if existence is not a system for us, it might be a system for God. In order to say that it is not or could not be a system for God we seem to need the very objective perspective on the whole that we lack according to the epistemic resistance to meta-narratives. Indeed, even in Lyotard’s famous claim about postmodernism, he only suggests an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” not a rejection of metanarratives as false. In this way, he stays consistently epistemic rather than inconsistently metaphysical. Let’s distinguish, then, between epistemic postmodernism and metaphysical postmodernism. In Kierkegaardian terms, we might say that epistemic postmodernism is about “how” we relate to reality (i.e., it endorses epistemic humility, inescapable perspective, the role of conceptual metaphors, etc.), and metaphysical postmodernism is about “what” reality there is, or in this case, is not. Metaphysical postmodernism would seem to make a hash out of the very debate about what there is in the first place because it assumes a perspective that has already been put into serious question. Were we to draw upon Merold Westphal, which I do often, we might say that just because we might be limited to lower case-t truth doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.” It very well might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.” Operating internal to epistemic rather than metaphysical postmodernism allows postmodern kataphaticism to leave both of these “truth” claims open.

Importantly, in my earlier essay, I do not say that John Caputo’s account is false, but simply that it is only one alternative among many within postmodern philosophy of religion. What matters is that there can be serious philosophical discussion about those alternatives rather than a quick assumption about the only possibility: that quick assumption is what I term the “apophatic orthodoxy.” This assumption can be motivated by a wide range of things, but in particular I think it is often a result of assuming that anti-foundationalism and the death of meta-narratives straightaway means an abandonment of epistemology, in general, and a decided metaphysical anti-realism that is often taken as being obvious.

That said, I welcome Hackett’s questions about assumed theories of truth within postmodern philosophy of religion. Moreover, I think his suggestion that pragmatism offers important resources to such debates is probably correct (I have made significant use of such neo-pragmatists as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam in my own work). Though I would go to Kierkegaard rather than to James for a robust account of the existential importance of truth-seeking, Hackett is right to suggest that holding belief “matters to personal experience and possibilities of future action.” As Kierkegaard puts it, it matters that I find a truth that is “true for me.” Yet, Hackett’s affirmation of the existential importance of truth just reinforces the broader importance of attempting to hold true beliefs in the first place (according to whatever theory of truth one deploys). Maybe the difference that matters between John Caputo and James K.A. Smith is more a matter of the “ways of life” that their account make possible, as Hackett seems to suggest, rather than which account accurately depicts reality. Perhaps. But, if so, then we should be very careful to consider what those ways of life are and how they function—that is, we should get clear on the truth of the matter at hand in order to even ask into the utility of such belief one way or another. Such a discussion, though, should be guided by the expectation that the participants in it are committed to giving good reasons for their claims (as defined internal to the discursive community in which they find themselves) and are willing to revise their claims in light of unmet objections. It seems to me that epistemic postmodernism is a better framework for this than is metaphysical postmodernism. Hence, postmodern kataphaticism is a better way forward than apophatic orthodoxy regardless of whether we then decide in favor of Smith or Caputo, Gianni Vattimo or Alain Badiou, Bruce Ellis Benson or Richard Kearney, or whoever.

Works Cited

Aikin, Scott F. 2005. “Who’s Afraid of Epistemology’s Regress Problem?” Philosophical Studies 126: 191-217.

Alston, William. 1989. Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Audi, Robert. 2001. The Architecture of Reason. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rescher, Nicholas. 2003. Epistemology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

________. 2012. “Apologetics After Objectivity.” In Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate

Religion: Toward a Religion with Religion. Eds., J. Aaron Simmons and Stephen Minister. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 23-59.

Simmons, J. Aaron and Scott F. Aikin. 2012. “Prospects for a Levinasian Epistemic Infinitism.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies. 20, no.3: 437-60.

Why Epistemology Still Matters for Phenomenology: An Engagement with Neal DeRoo

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Other Journal – The Church and Postmodernism as part of a Review Symposium on Neal Deroo’s Futurity in Phenomenology (Fordham UP, 2013).

Let me begin by saying that Neal DeRoo’s Futurity in Phenomenology is an excellent book and a significant contribution to the contemporary debates in at least two ways.

First, DeRoo offers a nuanced and compelling argument for why the new phenomenology of Levinas and Derrida should rightly be considered phenomenology. Though this book is not primarily about the philosophy of religion, DeRoo rightly challenges recent claims that new phenomenology has abandoned phenomenology and has, instead, turned into thinly-veiled confessional theology.  Better than any other book of which I am aware, DeRoo’s text shows in detail the ways in which Levinas and Derrida continue the Husserlian phenomenological project, even while pushing it in directions that Husserl himself might not have pursued.  Yet, one of the main theses of the book, I take it, is that Husserlian phenomenology was defined by a robust openness—to phenomena, to interpretive frameworks, to the future, etc.  As such, what might be sometimes judged as the phenomenological “heresy” of Levinas and Derrida (as suggested by Dominique Janicaud, but also at some points even by Levinas and Derrida themselves) is better understood as an extension of the methodological and hermeneutic openness (we might term it “hospitality” (Derrida) or “charity” (Marion)) of phenomenology itself.

Second, by offering such a sophisticated account of the ways in which futurity gets cashed out in phenomenology, DeRoo ultimately offers a vision for the future of phenomenology. This future is one that we might describe as positive and promissory. That is, when we see how futurity amounts to a constitutive relation to the Other, it invites an essential openness to that future/Other. As such, attending to this relation invites (and, indeed, encourages) behaviors, institutions, and structures that would enable the future to come on its own terms.  In other words, the future is not something that we should close off and, hence, we should practice hospitality and charity to this future as our mode of living here and now. “Communities and institutions, and not just individuals,” DeRoo explains, “are called to live in, as, and up to the promise” (152).  He continues on to show the way in which this brings the descriptive analysis (and tradition) of phenomenology to bear upon normative questions about social existence of concern to our shared future:

“Phenomenology bears on issues that are communal and institutional and therefore political, ethical, ecological, juridical, religious, and so on. Phenomenology is not confined to speaking strictly of the individual and its acts, and therefore its insights and breakthroughs are similarly not confined strictly to the individual. Hence employing a (quasi-)transcendental move does not prevent us from acting or thinking positively, contra Rorty and Wood. Rather in undertaking a genuinely transcendental analysis, we can come to understand the sense that our actions, communities, and institutions have received via traditionality and therefore, in turn, the sense that they pass on, via that same traditionality, to others. Such a transcendental analysis is, in and of itself, not merely a negation but a positive, ethical action” (152-3).

Now, for anyone who has read my own work, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that I am impressed by DeRoo’s book. I have also argued at length for the phenomenological legitimacy of new phenomenology (see: The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction). Additionally, I have argued for what I consider the important ethical, political, and religious possibilities that are opened by taking the potential normative implications of contemporary phenomenology quite seriously (see: God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn; and Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion). Indeed, I have even contended that quasi-transcendental argumentation is precisely what needs to be rehabilitated for such ends within a phenomenological context. That said, my initial desire when I set out to write this response to DeRoo was to explore issues related to political existence in light of DeRoo’s account. For example, how ought we to incorporate both the appreciation of tradition and also the promissory anticipation into political life? Does the emphasis on tradition yield a surprisingly conservative approach to governance and social institutions? Or, perhaps the constitutive anticipation and eschatological orientation invite a radical political vision of perpetual change? Moreover, how does openness to the future avoid giving rise to chaotic indeterminacy and undecidability about social realities? Surely the future is not absolutely open in the sense that we would unflinchingly affirm simply whatever may come. The future might bring new possibilities for charity, but it also might bring new realities of exclusion and violence. How does DeRoo see his decidedly technical account of contemporary phenomenology to respond to such worries?

Although I am deeply interested in having such a conversation with DeRoo and many others who are engaged in these issues in the literature, I want to go a slightly different direction in the remainder of my brief remarks here. Rather than asking these practical questions about social existence and political theory, I want to engage in some meta-philosophical speculation about the very conditions under which these questions could be most effectively asked (and perhaps answered).  Specifically, I want to think about DeRoo’s account of a “nonepistemological phenomenology” that he suggests to emerge especially in Levinas, but also in Derrida (see 57, 62, 69, 82, 86, 142, 151).  My tentative suggestion is that, despite very good reasons to resist some aspects of what Charles Taylor terms “the epistemological tradition” (e.g., the problematic notions of self-evidence and certainty that can be sometimes found within that tradition), contemporary phenomenologists should be wary of being viewed as engaged in “nonepistemological” inquiry—well, at least not without significant qualification.

They should be wary for two reasons. First, they should hesitate because the idea of “nonepistemological phenomenology” risks offering a reductive reading of the history of philosophy and equivocating on what “epistemology” means. Second, they should hesitate because they want to avoid the problem of self-refutation that seems to emerge when one offers reasons to resist traditional approaches to epistemology. That is, reason-giving requires serious thinking about what will count as evidence, how justification operates, and what knowledge requires—all of which are decidedly epistemological considerations. In the end, one could only argue for a “nonepistemological” approach to something if one is engaged (at least implicitly) in epistemological inquiry.  One could avoid such a problem of self-refutation by abandoning the task of reason-giving, of course, but that hardly seems a promising strategy for philosophical engagement. Ultimately, appearing to reject epistemology comes at too high a cost: it either invites being perceived as a weak thinker, or not being a thinker at all.

I do not think that Levinas, Derrida, or DeRoo are weak thinkers and I think that they all give very good reasons to take their accounts seriously.  As such, let me all-too-briefly try to reframe the notion of “nonepistemological phenomenology” as a more defensible notion. It may turn out that this is what DeRoo himself has in mind, but it is worth getting clear on this. My suggestion is that by better understanding epistemology itself (especially as formulated in contemporary analytic debates), we are better able to argue for the decidedly bright future of phenomenology. What is required, then, is not “nonepistemological phenomenology,” but a more robust appropriation of contemporary epistemology by those working in phenomenology (and continental philosophy, more broadly). Minimally, this appropriation is necessary in order that phenomenologists make a compelling case for phenomenology itself.

My suggestion is that when we talk about the “nonepistemological” phenomenological project of someone like Levinas, what we must mean is that he resists the priority of epistemology to ethics. Surely that is right about Levinas, and probably right about ethics itself. Indeed, Levinas often claims that the ethical relation is not a matter (primarily) of knowledge, but is a constitutive encounter that inaugurates my very subjectivity as a response. For Levinas, as for others such as Jean-Louis Chrétien, this encounter is what makes possible subsequent epistemological inquiry.  Simply put, only because I am called to respond by the Other can that task of reason-giving, say, be something that presses upon me. As Judith Butler suggests, “giving an account of oneself” is something that is called-forth by others. Ethics opens the very space for epistemology. So far so good, in this sense it seems entirely appropriate to suggest that Levinas’s ethical philosophy is a “nonepistemological” phenomenology.  And yet . . .

The problem is that the nonepistemological dimension is only something that can be presented, accounted for, explained, outlined, etc., by engaging in epistemic discourse.  Only by considering what would count as evidence for the Levinasian account of “originary peace” as a better alternative than the Hobbesian account of “originary war,” for example, could the Levinasian alternative be weighed and considered on its own terms. Indeed, one of the ways in which DeRoo nicely demonstrates the Husserlian aspects of Levinas’s thought is by focusing on the ways in which Levinas appropriates “the principle of all principles” in new ways—and thus, allows for a more expanded conception of evidence itself. Importantly, though Levinas compellingly argues that ontology is not fundamental (at least as early as 1951), he argues for this conclusion!  Moreover, even if ontology is not fundamental, that does not mean that we are able to be non-ontologically situated.  In other words, the account we give of the ethical relation is never adequate to the relation itself, but the relation is something only taken up in the accounts we offer of it—hence the importance and radicality of Levinas’s very project.

Despite the frequency with which DeRoo talks about a nonepistemological phenomenology, toward the end of the book, he offers a more nuanced account of what is going on in new phenomenology.  It is not as if there is an epistemological phenomenology (Husserl) and a nonepistemological phenomenology (Levinas and Derrida), but instead that phenomenology (when broadly considered in light of its commitment to openness) displays both epistemic and nonepistemic dimensions. This seems exactly right, but hardly surprising. Surely a methodology and tradition defined by a commitment to considering that which gives itself in its very mode of givenness would require a variety of ways of making sense of such givenness. Some phenomena are given in ways that easily allow for primarily epistemic consideration, but others resist such consideration because they present themselves “of themselves” in such a way as to challenge the supremacy of epistemic consideration itself—e.g., the face of the Other, the trace of God, the event, etc. And yet, such nonepistemic dimensions require epistemic analysis just as the epistemic dimensions require being located and challenged by ethical and or ethico-religious interruption.

Ultimately, then, continental philosophers should be careful in seeming to reject epistemology. To do so would be to reject the very conditions according to which such a rejection could be justified. And, one of the central upshots of the ethical relation is that such a demand for justification—for one’s beliefs, actions, and very selfhood—is required because of the primacy of sociality. Rather than defending a nonepistemological phenomenology, my suggestion is that we need a phenomenological intervention into contemporary epistemology. We should be able to offer good reasons (as I take DeRoo to do) for why phenomenology deserves to be considered a viable participant in the future of philosophical inquiry.

Can Philosophy Come Forth As Prophecy?

By J. Aaron Simmons and Zachary Jolly
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

In 1984 Alvin Plantinga’s landmark essay, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” appeared in print in Faith and Philosophy. This widely celebrated essay can rightly be said to have crystalized the early gestures toward what has become known as contemporary “Christian Philosophy,” and stands as an important moment in the resurgence of philosophical theology more broadly in academic discourse at the end of the twentieth century. Though this single essay’s influence can surely be overstated (among others, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, and Plantinga himself were doing work that could rightly be considered as “Christian Philosophy” prior to 1984 – for a good synopsis of Plantinga’s influence, see Wolterstorff (2011)), this essay has received something like mythic status as part of the founding narrative of contemporary Christian philosophy, at least as largely embodied by the Society of Christian Philosophers.  Though granting the significance of Plantinga’s essay and concurring with the historical assessment of its importance, we want to highlight another, less familiar essay, an essay that, while calling for something quite similar to Plantinga, predates “Advice to Christian Philosophers” by a decade: Merold Westphal’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy of Religion Which Will Be Able to Come Forth as Prophecy” (1973). Westphal’s essay offers a significant challenge to the “scientific” presumptions of the philosophical study of religion (both as natural (a)theology and also as phenomenology of religion).

For Westphal, the main characteristic of such a scientific approach is “objectivity”—or, at least, the attempt to achieve such objectivity.  Drawing heavily on the work of Kierkegaard, Westphal suggests that approaching philosophy of religion in an objectivist manner is problematic because it fails to appreciate the radically subjective aspect of religious existence. As Westphal explains: “It appears that the notion of scientific objectivity, even without the ideals of mathematical precision and general laws, when torn from its natural habitat and transferred to the religious realm, reveals the fundamental incongruity between itself and its newly assigned subject matter” (1991, 5).  Unlike the relation between natural science and the philosophy of science in which “the same pursuit of detached objectivity is fundamental to both” (1991, 11), religion and the “scientific” approach to philosophy of religion, Westphal suggests, do not admit of such “harmony” (1991, 11).  Instead, “it appears that the phenomenology of religion can be justified only in terms of interests that are foreign, even hostile, to the subject matter” (1991, 11).  In light of such a tension between “methodology and subject matter,” Westphal advocates articulating possible alternative methodologies that are more appropriate to the content of our inquiry as philosophers of religion.  While admitting that there might be a variety of such alternatives, Westphal suggests that one promising model that stands in contrast to the scientist is “the Hebrew prophet” (1991, 11).

According to Westphal, prophetic discourse is characterized by four qualities.  It is personal, untimely, political, and eschatological (1991, 12).  Detailed analysis of each of these aspects is beyond our scope here, but, in brief, personal discourse occurs “in the mode of direct address” (1991, 12) such that objectivity is displaced with subjective investment in one’s context and community. Untimeliness expresses the idea that prophetic speech is always “conspicuously out of step with the spirit of its times” and, hence, “it is always the speech of a minority” (1991, 14). Here we can see that untimeliness requires the quality of personal discourse—one is only out of step with the time in which one finds oneself and represents a minority only in relation to some historically constituted majority, etc.  The political aspect might more properly be understood as a challenge to the power structures operative within a community. Prophetic speech is political insofar as it contests the established order.  Again, this is in relation to the other aspects: one challenges power structures with an eye toward the status of the marginalized (“the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”) and from within the community in which those structures continue to claim legitimacy.  Finally, the eschatological dimension of prophetic discourse amounts to the fact that such discourse is “penultimate” and affirms the “priority of God’s future” (1991, 17). As Westphal explains, there is always a “Gospel” to which the prophecy testifies.

With this brief overview of Westphal’s account in place, we might notice that it shares quite a bit with Plantinga’s own “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”  First, both Plantinga and Westphal call for philosophy of religion to abandon modernist pretentions to objectivity such that philosophers of religion fully appreciate that they operate within the communities in which they always already find themselves. While we think that there are important points of difference between the way Plantinga and Westphal will cash out the idea of community, that fact should not overshadow the way in which they both advocate philosophy of religion that is “personal.”  Second, given the general state of the philosophical discipline in which Plantinga and Westphal were writing, a call for “Christian Philosophy” or “Prophetic Philosophy of Religion” is untimely indeed.  Third, both Plantinga and Westphal are eschatologically oriented in that they call for philosophers of religion to think in light of the “Gospel” such that there is a positive content toward which the philosopher of religion might strive.  The only one of the four qualities outlined by Westphal that is noticeably absent from Plantinga is the “political” dimension.  Yet even Plantinga might be read as politically engaged if one understands the “power structures” being challenged to be those of mid-century American philosophy still under the influence of some problematic forms of classical foundationalism and the lingering traces of positivism.  Despite these points of resonance, however, Plantinga does not articulate his account in terms of “the prophetic.”  Indeed, even in later essays where Plantinga returns to the idea of what would constitute Christian philosophy, he does not draw primarily on the idea of prophetic discourse, but instead seems more motivated by the idea of shifting the epistemic starting points of philosophy from non-Theistic/Christian assumptions to Theistic/Christian ones (see Plantinga 1998, chapters 12, 13, and the afterword).  Accordingly, Westphal’s project is, as we see it, broader in its scope and potential impact since it is not simply a epistemic defense of “Christian” starting points, but instead stands a call for a revised mode of philosophical discourse itself—a mode that will hopefully remain open to the radically subjective/experiential/dispossessing way in which that which we call “religion” shows itself both in culture and in personal practice/belief.  In this sense, Westphal remains quite rightly in line with the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions in which he primarily works.

(As a parenthetical remark, we should note that in his regrettably titled The End of Philosophy of Religion (a better title would have been, The Reconstruction of Philosophy of Religion, or A Revision of Philosophy of Religion, etc.), Nick Trakakis (2008) turns to “prophetic” alternatives to what he considers the continuing appeals to objectivity within analytic philosophy of religion.  In particular, Trakakis looks to Westphal’s prophetic philosophy of religion and John Caputo’s notion of “prophetic postmodernism” (see Caputo 2000) as “literary” alternatives to the “scientific” mode of discourse in mainstream philosophy of religion.  Unfortunately, Trakakis overstates the impact of stylistic differences.  Importantly, Westphal’s point was not that philosophers of religion should be more poetic, but that they should challenge the criteria governing their discourse such that objectivity and detachment are assumed as ideals. One can challenge such criteria without, thereby, writing more poetically.  Indeed, we think that there might be less perceived distance between and analytic and continental philosophy if such stylistic differences were viewed as secondary matters of form rather than primary matters of content and conviction.)

So, what does the distinctly “prophetic” dimension get Westphal that might remain lacking in Plantinga?  Without being able to argue this at length, we want to propose that by appealing to the prophetic, Westphal allows for a distinction between what we can term “prophetic philosophy of religion” on the one hand, and “prophecy” on the other hand.  Namely, when Westphal first turns to the Hebrew prophet as an alternative to the scientific philosopher of religion, he states that prophets (“like apostles”) were originally distinguished from “geniuses” insofar as “the listener is asked to accept the message not because of its profundity, eloquence, or beauty, but because ‘thus saith the Lord’” (1991, 11).  Here, Westphal is in agreement with the basic description of the prophet given by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In speaking, the prophet reveals God.  This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible. He does not prove or argue.  The thought he has to convey is more than language can contain.  Divine power bursts in the words.  The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal. There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham.  There are only witnesses” (1962, 22). For Heschel, the authority of the prophet comes from the authority of God. Though making it clear that the prophet is something far greater than a mouthpiece of the divine, Heschel insists that “God is raging in the prophet’s words” (1962, 5).  While Westphal admits that “thus saith the Lord” is the hallmark of prophecy, he claims that “I do not wish to suggest that philosophers of religion seek to imitate prophets in this respect” (1991, 12). This move is key.  Following Kierkegaard, Westphal is rightly hesitant to allow philosophers, as philosophers, to speak with the authority of the prophet/apostle. Yet Westphal’s halt here is made not in the name of philosophical supremacy, but of religious humility.  In order to make room for the possibility of prophets, Westphal calls only for “prophetic philosophy” and not for philosophers to be prophets.  For, as Heschel explains, the prophet does not care primarily about proofs and argument, but revealing the glory of God.

In this way, Westphal’s call for philosophy of religion that would “come forth as prophecy” can be read as a limitation of philosophy itself.  Simply put, lest it give in to the very sorts of objectivist/scientific assumptions that it attempted to overcome, philosophy of religion cannot deny the possibility of prophets who speak with an authority other than that of philosophical argumentation.  Yet, philosophers of religion who recognize this limitation are, thereby, far from limited.  Indeed, they are now opened onto the possibility that their own discourse was merely a primer or prolegomena.

The philosophical humility invited by prophetic philosophy of religion is something that stands, we believe, as a possible corrective to the temptation to which much of contemporary Christian philosophy yields: arrogance regarding philosophical ability and scope. This might play out as the idea that philosophers really make the best theologians (see Plantinga 1998, 341; this also seems to be a danger of some of “analytic theology,” we believe)—let’s term this the temptation to philosophical arrogance.  Or, it might show up as the idea that there are philosophical limitations on what prophecy might proclaim (consider John Caputo’s seeming dismissal of the some of the key miracles of Christian Scripture as either poetic parables or magical presentations of God as merely “the ultimate laser show at Disneyworld” (2006, 16))—let’s term this the temptation to theological reductionism.  On the one hand, when philosopher’s leave room for some people legitimately to speak with the authority of “thus saith the Lord,” a more radical openness to “the impossible” is countenanced than would (ironically) otherwise be possible internal to a “religion without religion” (Derrida/Caputo).  Virgins might really give birth.  The dead might really walk out of their graves.  Justice might really “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).  And, if we have really abandoned the modernist conception of scientific objectivity and naturalistic presuppositions, then why should we think that the last example is any more “possible” or “less miraculous” than the former?  On the other hand, when philosophers realize that, as philosophers, they cannot claim the authority of “thus saith the Lord,” they stay far from the temptation that philosophy is really all that is needed for religious existence. Now, importantly, we are not saying that Plantinga (or analytic theology) gives in to this temptation to philosophical arrogance. And we are not saying that the only way to interpret Caputo is as giving in to theological reductionism (for other readings of Caputo, see Olthuis 2002; Dooley 2003; Simpson 2009; and Zlomislić and DeRoo 2010). Our claim is more modest: Westphal’s notion of prophetic philosophy of religion, as distinct from prophecy (and the attendant authority structures operative therein) allows for philosophy to be open to more than itself.  This seems to us like a good methodological first step in both philosophical and religious truth seeking.  It is not clear what carefully attending to Westphal’s account as a similar, but different, approach to philosophy of religion than that offered by Plantinga will yield in the contemporary debates, but we think that it is well worth finding out.

Works Cited

Caputo, John D. 2000. “Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernity.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly LXXIV, no. 4: 549-67.

Dooley, Mark, ed. 2003. A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1962. The Prophets. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Olthuis, James H., ed. 2002. Religion with/out Religion: The Prayers and Tears of John D. Caputo. London: Routledge.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2011. “Response to Nick Wolterstorff.” Faith and Philosophy 28, no.3 (July): 267-68.

Planginta, Alvin. 1998. The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader. Ed. James F. Sennett. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1984. “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1: 253-71.

Simpson, Christopher Ben. 2009. Religion, Metaphysics and the Postmodern: William Desmond and John Caputo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Trakakis, Nick. 2008. The End of Philosophy of Religion. London: Continuum.

Westphal, Merold. 1973. “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy of Religion Which Will Be Able to Come Forth as Prophecy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4, no.3 (Fall). 129-50.

Westphal, Merold. 1991. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. University Park: Penn State University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2011. “Then, Now, and Al.” Faith and Philosophy 28, no.3 (July): 253-66.

Zomislić, Marko and Neil DeRoo, eds. 2010. Cross and Khôra: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo. Eugene: Pickwick Publications.

Postmodern Kataphaticism?

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2012)
For a more developed consideration of these ideas, see my more recent essay: “Postmodern Kataphaticism: A Constructive Proposal.”

Let me begin by simply offering the following thesis: The genuinely important negative theological trajectory in much of postmodern/continental/deconstructive philosophy of religion has led to its own problematic dogmatism.  Specifically, in the crucial attempt to overcome onto-theology, much of continental philosophy of religion has seemingly given rise to what I will term an “apophatic orthodoxy.”  By “apophatic orthodoxy,” I mean that postmodernism has, for the most part, insisted on only one approach to the truth-claims, religious practices, and determinate authority structures of religious communities.  Namely, it appears that the only legitimate possibility for postmodern religious existence is one in which faith occurs “without seeing, without having, and without knowing” (Caputo 1997, 103), such that the structures of religiosity are maintained without determinate content.  It is as if many postmodern philosophers read the second half of Johannes Climacus’s famous statement, existence “cannot be a system for any existing spirit,” but paid no attention to the first half, “Existence itself is a system—for God” (Kierkegaard 1992, 118).  Even if we follow Merold Westphal and introduce the hermeneutic awareness that reality “may very well be” a system for God (2001, 190) rather than the stronger claim that it “is” that way for God, it is important to realize that for many postmodern philosophers, since existence is not a system for us, it simply is not a system at all.   Yet, as Westphal rightly points out, this move is an obvious non-sequitur.  While there are a host of reasons for worrying that an overly determinate religious discourse would slide back into onto-theology and epistemic arrogance, whereby theology is made to answer to philosophical categories assumed to be objectively stable, there are not good reasons to think that all determinate religious discourse is necessarily overly determinate.  Accordingly, I want to propose an idea of “Postmodern Kataphaticism.”

This idea is not new, though the phrase might be.  I am drawing heavily on Westphal and other postmodern philosophers of religion such as Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, Kevin Hart, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson, among others, who all warn against the dangers of self-protective theological insularity (where claims to certainty insulate one from critique), while also realizing the danger of moving too far away from the religious traditions in which the God-talk being criticized finds its historical expression.   So, although Postmodern Kataphaticism would certainly resist reducing religious existence to a matter of propositional assent, it would maintain the importance of trying to hold true-beliefs about the nature and existence of God.  In this way, Postmodern Kataphaticism need not be exclusively “continental.”  Many philosophers of religion working more in an “analytic” mode are also likely to be at home with this basic idea.  I am thinking in particular of thinkers such as William Hasker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and C. Stephen Evans, who all resist propositional reductionism while taking quite seriously the importance of tracking with truth.

Similarly, though Postmodern Kataphaticism would be suspicious of thinking that human cognitive and linguistic abilities are adequate to the task of understanding God, and in this sense would continue to maintain an apophatic dimension, it would not give in to the temptation of thinking that if we cannot understand God fully, then we cannot understand God at all.  When Levinas said that the Other “overflows comprehension,” he is careful not to suggest that the Other is absolutely incomprehensible, for that would eliminate the very possibility of an encounter with the Other in the first place.  Similarly, when postmodernists rightly stress the problems with thinking about God as a being, they should be wary of going further and saying that God does not exist or that God cannot be a being.  Instead, with Marion, we should admit that it is possible that God is at least a being, though Being is likely not the best category in which to think of God, and probably not the primary name for God.  Yet, when Marion suggests that Love is a better name for God than are “prime mover” or “causa sui,” he does not mean this as empty rhetorical play, but instead as a determinate truth-claim.  He is putting forth that “God is Love” is a better way to understand God than other alternatives on offer.  Accordingly, Postmodern Kataphaticism would understand that one is not stuck with the false dichotomy of either Classical Onto-theology or something like Derridian “Religion without Religion.”  Instead, determinate religious identity (Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or whatever) is still possible for those who have embraced Derridian deconstruction.  Following Derrida on some things need not mean that one follow Derrida on all things.  Being deconstructive in terms of language, textuality, and identity need not entail that one also “rightly passes as an atheist.” That said, an important upshot of Postmodern Kataphaticism would be that atheism would also be a determinate identity that remains possible as well.  Kierkegaard was right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming a Christian,” yet Sartre was just as right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming an Atheist.”  The apophatic orthodoxy that threatens postmodern philosophy of religion would make Kierkegaard’s notion a non-starter and Sartre’s notion entirely too safe, and thus unimportant.  Let me give just one example in order to work some of this out—if only very tentatively.

In The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, the groundbreaking book which significantly contributed to the contemporary prominence of “Continental” or “Deconstructive” philosophy of religion, John Caputo argues that deconstruction yields a “generalized apophatics” according to which “negative theology is everybody’s business, that it has a general translatability, that we cannot trust any discourse that is not contaminated by negative theology” (1997, 28; see also 32, 41, 46, 55).  Caputo continues on to claim that generalized apophatics involves a “deeply affirmative desire for something that is always essentially other than the prevailing regime of presence, something tout autre—too, too other, oui, oui—is of general interest.  A passion for the impossible is a matter of general concern” (1997, 28).  I think that it would not be too far off the mark to say that all continental philosophers of religion are sympathetic with Caputo’s account and display similar suspicions and desires.  Nonetheless, is it the case that one has to go quite as far as Caputo seems to suggest?  Must a generalized apophatics get cashed out as a rejection of what Caputo (2006) elsewhere terms “strong theology”?  Why can’t the “contamination of negative theology” be something that invites merely epistemic humility rather than metaphysical exclusion?  Another way of saying this is that the non-sequitur discussed above occurs when one moves from epistemic antirealism to metaphysical antirealism without additional argument.  Apophatic orthodoxy occurs when one assumes that no such additional argument is needed.

The point is that Caputo seems to suggest that we can trust a discourse that is contaminated by apophatics.  Yet, this general epistemic anti-realism would not prescribe the content of such a contaminated discourse—i.e., it would remain metaphysically uncommitted.  It is entirely plausible that theistic, atheistic, nontheistic, etc., accounts might all qualify if they are accounts held with requisite hermeneutic sensitivity, contextual appreciation, historicist sensibility, and perspectival understanding.  As Westphal might say, we might be restricted to lower-case t “truth,” but that doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.”  Indeed, it might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.”  This would be the difference between the equally perspectival accounts of Kierkegaard on the one hand and Nietzsche on the other hand.  Deciding one way or another would always involve risk and, as Derrida would say, amount to a real decision.  Accordingly, postmodern philosophy of religion should not and, indeed, cannot start from a rejection of particular theological accounts, because that would be to assume the very thing it fundamentally challenges—a systematic and final view available for existing individuals.  Rather such philosophy can, from the outset, only critique particular ways of relating to such accounts: as held and affirmed with certainty.  Problems arise when, having moved from epistemic to metaphysical antirealism, one then assumes that only some metaphysical accounts, namely those which stress the ineffability, unknowability, excessiveness of God, are viable while other, namely those which stress the intimacy, personality, proximity, relationality, and historical incarnation of God are not.  That is not to say that one might not be able to then go on to provide good reasons for moving in one direction as opposed to another, but the point is that arguments are required to justify such a move.  Just being a postmodernist, a deconstructionist, or a continental philosopher is not sufficient.  Again, let’s consider examples from Caputo.

Although Caputo does claim that he offers “no final opinion” about God “as an entitative issue” (2006, 10), his account of the “strong theology,” to which he is so strenuously opposed, ends up looking a lot like any perspective that understands God as a personal being.   Indeed, Caputo’s suspension of judgment regarding whether God is a being is offered just one page after his claim that “The name of God is being’s aspiration, its inspiration, its aeration, for God is not being or a being but a ghostly quasi-being, a very holy spirit” (2006, 9, emphasis added).  Moreover, it is offered just two pages prior to his claim that “the name of God is the name of an event rather than of an entity . . .” (2006, 12, emphasis added).  Accordingly, it becomes difficult to know what to make of Caputo’s seeming allowance for what we might term a “divine personalism” within a deconstructive frame.  Though he says that he has not excluded such a possibility, he then seems to deny that very possibility twice within three pages.  In this way, Caputo appears to follow quite close on Derrida’s suggestion that “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more—into the bargain, precisely—capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places” (2008, 108).  This proximity to Derrida is explicit when Caputo goes on to say that “I do not think of God as some super-being who out-knows, out-wills, out-does, out-powers, and out-exists every entity here below, a higher super-entity, a hyper-presence dwelling in a higher world.  I do not think of God as an omnipotent onto-theo-cosmo-logical power source for the universe, but as the unconditional demand for beneficence that shocks the world with a promise that is not kept, as the heart of a heartless world, as the call from below being that summons us to rise beyond being, beyond ourselves” (2006, 39).  “By ‘God’,” Caputo continues, “. . . I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as a super-being up there, up above the world, who physically powers and causes it, who made it and occasionally intervenes upon its day-to-day activities to tweak things for the better in response to a steady stream of solicitations from down below (a hurricane averted here, an illness averted there, etc.).  That I consider an essentially magical view of the world” (2006, 39).  Lest we think that we have now made sense of Caputo’s account as denying that God is a being, which given the three passages above would seem like a safe assumption, on the very next page he again insists on his neutrality on that issue: “Whether over and beyond what we might call the hermeneutics of the event, the lived experience of the call and of being on call, there is some entitative cause calling, some entity or hyper-entity out there with a proper name, verifiable by a metaphysical argument or certifiable by a divine revelation, is no part of my hypothesis, one way or another (for or against)” (2006, 40).

While it is crucial to appropriate the postmodern apophatic suspicion that Caputo hopes to cultivate, it is equally important to understand that such suspicion is always directed toward something.  Apophatics can only contaminate something if there is something there to contaminate.  So, when Caputo defends a notion of “weak theology,” as an alternative to “strong theology,” this must be done with argument and not with assumptions about what postmodernism entails—for it does not entail anything metaphysical in such ways.  Whether Caputo successfully offers such argument is beyond the scope of my brief remarks here.  Yet, if he is successful, then even his own “weak” model is still a demonstration of Postmodern Kataphatics, because it would make the case that within postmodernism a determinate account of God is possible.  One can be determinately negative or determinately positive—and both gestures can be found in historical theological archives.  The key, however, is to resist the temptation to immediately think, or to take it as obvious, that only such a “weak” model would be viable within postmodernism.  Postmodern Kataphaticism invites serious consideration of the variety of models on offer and attempts to understand them as always apophatically interrupted.  As Kevin Schilbrack might say, whether one defends strong theology or weak theology, both accounts should be “held weakly.”  To say that postmodernism necessitates exclusively defending a weak theology that is “held strongly” is going too far (again, I am not saying that Caputo does this, but simply that his work provocatively illuminates the stakes of such questions).

My hope in calling for a Postmodern Kataphaticism is that Caputo’s “theo-poetics” and something like Jamie Smith’s Pentecostally oriented Reformed version of Radical Orthodoxy would both be recognized as options worth weighing and considering within postmodern philosophy of religion (whether within a continental or analytic mode).  The debate about what reasons one might offer for choosing one over the other is a debate well worth having and, I believe, would productively help to overcome the overblown opposition between continental and analytic philosophy of religion.  Even if postmodernism, in general, invites hesitation in the face of dogmatism, one cannot sit on fences forever.  Postmodern Kataphaticism reminds us of this and helps us to understand that even the most radical apophatic discourse is dependent upon positive claims.  Such claims may or may not be true—hence the need for continued conversation and good arguments—but that they might be true is what is important.  Postmodern apophaticism does not avoid making truth-claims, but it becomes problematically dogmatic and unhelpfully orthodox when it forgets this while criticizing everyone else for doing so.

Works Cited:

Caputo, John D. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Caputo, John D. 2006. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Ed. and Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Westphal, Merold. 2001. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press.