Change the Game, not Merely the Score: Reflections on the “Logic” of Leadership

divided forest

***Originally Presented to The Atlantic Institute Dialogue Dinner (Greer, SC – November 2018)

 

 

 

I have often said that far too many professors are still angry about being picked on by the athletes in high school. Although I usually mean this statement as something of a joke aimed at the problematic way that academics tend to take themselves way too seriously, I actually think that there is also something true at the heart of it. Frequently, academics view their own approach to thinking, living, and knowing as not simply the “best” way to do things, but the “only” way to do things correctly.

This is especially common among the STEM disciplines due to the social empowerment that attends scientific discourse as nebulously obvious. Just think about the way in which one can appeal to “science” as a singular authoritative discourse: “Scientific studies show . . .” “Science says that . . .” “According to science, we know . . .” etc. According to the French philosopher, Michel Henry, the dangerous thing about understanding science this way is that we end up overextending its scope of application such that we erase other domains of human knowing that lay beyond scientific inquiry.

For example, I am sure that neuroscience can tell me a lot about what happens in the brain during experiences of love, but I am also sure that it can’t tell me much about what it means to experience love as a lived relationship to another person. I am sure that sociology and psychology can offer important insights into the reality of implicit bias, but I am also sure that neither can help much when it comes to living into hospitality as a moral imperative. I am confident that biologists and chemists can say a lot about what constitutes life, but I am also confident that they can’t say much about what makes life worth living. Henry goes as far as to warn that if we allow science to be everything, that is, to be the only thing when it comes to knowledge, then we are actively engaged in practices that will lead to the death of our culture. In other words, art, religion, and ethics are rarely made better through lab reports.

We are more than merely biological organisms and yet biology remains important. Just because something is not the only thing does not mean that it is simply nothing. This might seem obvious, but as David Foster Wallace notes, oftentimes when we carefully consider the stuff we take for granted as obvious, the really important things about life become visible. I think that academics tend to take themselves too seriously because (especially in the humanities), what they do is so often not taken seriously enough.

We live in a society in which college athletics are certainly not undervalued. So, when the football coach of the state university is frequently the highest paid employee in the state, and simultaneously increasing percentages of college courses are taught by adjunct faculty who are living below the poverty line (despite having graduate degrees and authoring books), it is not unreasonable to think something is wrong. Similarly, given that rarely are the members of the chess club, or Latin club, as socially prominent in their high schools as the football players or members of the wrestling team, say, it is not silly for professors to maintain these old animosities toward those folks that they perceive to challenge their own significance.

Perhaps this is why so many professors are offended when you don’t call them “Dr”? “I’ve earned it,” they say. Sure, but perhaps the deeper explanation is that they continue to feel like that awkward 16-year-old who just wants to be noticed by the other 16-year-old who is also just trying to fit in. In this way, their not having gotten over being picked on by the athletes, or cool kids, more broadly, in high school, and alternatively, the perceived need of the athletes to pick on them in order to maintain their “cool” status, might expose something important about their psyches, but also about the logic of exclusion by which they both understand their professional and personal identities.

By “logic” here I don’t mean the math-like stuff we learn in philosophy courses on critical thinking, but instead the background frame of meaning by which things signify as what they are. The logic of exclusion is the idea that things are either everything or nothing. This logic plays out in lots of ways in our lives. Consider religious discourse that thinks if you are part of this church you are not participating in salvation. Think about the way that it works in social dynamics: you are either part of the group that matters or you just don’t matter at all. For academics, I think that far too many of them think that since they have so often not been invited to the cool-kids’ parties, they must now make the cool kids irrelevant in order to be able to throw parties of their own.

The logic of exclusion operates due to a variety of other logics that reinforce and supplement it. The logic of binary options is the main one to notice here. Remember when George Bush said that you are either with us or with the terrorists? This is the binary logic at work. It has been transformed recently into the following: you are either a member of this political party or you are not a patriot. Alternatively, think about religion: you are either a participant in this religion or you are wrong about God. Or think about the frequent social understanding of academic life: You are either majoring in pre-med or business, on the one hand, or you will be unemployed for the rest of your life, on the other hand! Moreover, notice the way that this binary logic also so frequently and disastrously applies to more basic socially deployed identity categories. You are either man or woman, anything else is non-existent. You are either straight or confused. You are either white or black. You are either Christian or atheist. You are either Northern or racist. We could go on and on offering other examples of such binary logics, but the point is that the logic of exclusion requires such binaries in order to operate. Yet, like exclusivism, binaries are often reflections of the views of those already in power, rather than reflections of the ways that power might be rethought, reframed, and reconsidered.

When there is no nuance, no complexity, and no ambiguity, there is also rarely anything original, creative, or excellent. Perhaps ironically, binaries invite mediocrity and extremism.

It fosters mediocrity because when we say that everything is either this or that, we also do not allow for better or worse examples to be possible within those alternatives.

It fosters extremism because when we say that everything is either this or that, we want to foreclose anything that might appear to interrupt the clarity with which we make judgments about those who are not like us. This extremism shows up in the attempt to make anyone who would offer nuance to a view or a position look like a threat to the group holding the view.

Let me show you what this might look like when played out on the ground. I once was invited to speak at a Christian university by a student group. The group wanted me to speak about progressive politics and Christian ethics. They were told by the administration that I was not approved to be on campus because I was “dangerous” to the campus community. So, I had to give the talk at a coffee shop off campus – it was packed with students desperately seeking to hear from folks who understood Christianity to allow for a more complicated and nuanced approach to social life. Similarly, I have been asked to leave several churches, and denied academic positions at Christian universities, because I was perceived as “dangerous and divisive” to the community. Notice here that the danger is that the group polarity would itself become divided in ways that no longer respected the boundaries of the division between the binary alternatives by which the group identity is framed and understood.

When we continue to play the game of life according to the logic of exclusion and the binary logic by which such exclusion functions, we eliminate the possibility of being a game-changer. Instead, we can only ever change the score by being better at the game dictated and stipulated by others. Yet those others are powerful precisely due to their own belief in the exclusivism of the binaries by which they conceive the world and their position in it.

Unfortunately, too often leadership is conceived as a matter of playing such games well. Indeed, think about how often universities advertise themselves as being better than other schools as offering “real world experience” so that their graduates get better jobs and make more money.

Look, I like my job (most days), and I wish I had more money. My point here is not that these are bad things to care about as essential to a flourishing human existence given our current particular social arrangement. My point is that when we think that leadership is about understanding the rules and making sure that everyone else plays according to them – or finding the lines and then enforcing those boundaries, we never open spaces in which to envision things differently. There is no genuine progress because either we repeat things, or we become unrecognizable.

Simply put, we merely change the score within the game, but never change the game itself. Were we to change the game, then we threaten to undermine the power of those who understand their importance according to its current operation. Yet, think about who we remember as truly great in a variety of human endeavors: Albert Einstein, Aristotle, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Michael Jordan, Danica Patrick, Serena Williams, Ghandi, the Buddha, and the list could continue on and on. The point is that all of these individuals refused to do things the way that others had done. They made possible what others considered impossible. They changed the game itself, and not merely the score.

True leaders are gamechangers. We change the game when we reject the logic of exclusion and explore logics of hospitality. We change the game when we refuse to operate according to binaries and open spaces for new options. A big movement in business currently is the idea of “disruptive practices.” Think about that. The companies who stand to make the most significant impacts on the world are those that don’t just tweak things around the edges but fundamentally ask “why not?” where everyone else gets intimidated by the difficulty of asking “why?”

When we stop thinking that our not sitting at the cool kids’ table means that we are not cool, we open the door for inviting a bunch of “nobodies” to find themselves as “someone.” The philosopher Jacques Derrida, someone who certainly was disruptive to the binary logics by which philosophy operated in his day, once claimed that the basic logic by which we should understand our social lives can be summarized in the words: “viens, oui, oui” (Come! Yes, yes!). Notice here the invitation that gets followed by affirmation, rather than the exclusion that yields negation.

Importantly, such hospitality requires humility. It necessitates that we realize that our way is not the only way, and maybe not even the best way. Inviting others to come means that we not only welcome their ideas, but their criticism. Crucially, though, when we realize that our identities are not threatened by the identities of others, we begin to understand that our identities are much more interesting, complicated, and dynamic than we were led to believe by those who said that we could only be “us” when “they” are opposed. The same is true for our society: bridges allow for movement without eliminating different sides of the river, but walls restrict our view regardless of which side we are on.

I want to invite you this evening to be a game changer; to be disruptive; to be nuanced; to live in the spaces that everyone else abandons. But also, let me invite you to be hospitable, to be humble, and to embrace the critique that allows you to live toward truth and excellence.

We need athletes and we need academics. We need biologists and classicists. We need politicians and plumbers. But, we definitely don’t need more mediocrity and extremism. There is plenty of that already on display in the world – usually motivated and encouraged by the most powerful among us. Rather than be intimidated by that power, or suck up to it in order to get ahead in “the real world,” let’s become leaders who are not concerned with being powerful; and let’s create worlds that are currently nothing more than the dreams of disruptive voices that get ignored by those only interested in hearing their own.

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“The Différance that Makes all the Difference: On the Allure of Bus(i/y)ness”

*** Delivered to the Greenville Business Magazine’s “Best and Brightest Under 35” (2018)

busy

I once gave a talk to a large audience of business leaders and on my PowerPoint slides I accidentally spelled Business with a ‘y’: “Busyness.” This was entirely an accident, but often mistakes lead to the greatest achievements (just think about the invention of Tang!).

In light of that mistake on my slide, I did some research and discovered that, etymologically, all the way from Middle English until the 18th Century, “business” (with an ‘i’) was historically the spelling for the word indicating “the state of being busy, or having a great deal to do.” It has only been since then that we have replaced the ‘i’ with the ‘y’ in order to distinguish between one’s occupation or profession, on the one hand, and being overwhelmed with too much to do, on the other hand.

Even more interestingly, and perhaps more profoundly, the root of ‘business’ (whether with the y or i) is the Middle English term, ‘bisignis’ which simply meant: ‘anxiety’! This basic idea that business is linked to a state of stress is even in play in Latin where the term for business is ‘negōtium’ which is a combination of ‘neg’ and ‘ōtium’ – which amounts to a negation of the idea of leisure or relaxation. So, engaging in business is precisely not to be relaxed!

Look, we all know that words change their meaning in various ways throughout history, and various phrases go in and out of vogue (right, cool cat? Give me some skin, daddy o’ – high five!). Yet, philosophers and philologists have done impressive work to show that etymologies are almost like historical skeletons in our contemporary closet – they continue to hide in plain sight, even when forgotten most days.

Histories are dynamic things, but they also are sticky. Like socks stuck on our pants after coming out of the dryer, they cling to us even when we wish that they did not. Importantly, though, it takes work to see the ways in which histories function—in other words, we might say that histories have life precisely in the present (hence, for example, the continued difficult and yet crucial conversations about civic memorials).

Sometimes we want to shake off our history in order to move out from its problematic shadow. Other times we want to let the shadow fall upon us for the shelter that it provides. Just like the painting of dogs playing poker that is meant to hide the Rembrandt underneath, it is often worth scratching a bit off of the surface of things to see what might be hidden there. Perhaps we will find hardwood floors under the outdated shag carpet! But, it is also possible that we will find water damage that requires us to start over from the foundations.

That said . . .

  • What if the Greenville Business Magazine were instead to appropriate its etymological history and rename itself the “Greenville Anxiety Magazine”?
  • What if the Furman University or Clemson University Business Departments were to become the “Departments of Not Relaxing”?
  • What if we were to rethink the Master of Business Administration degree as the “Master of Being Busy Administration”?

When rethought in such ways, it is worth asking ourselves what one actually accomplishes by being successful in business at a young age.

  • Does this mean that one has successfully managed to overcome the temptations of being busy, or does it mean that one is just busier than others?
  • Does it mean that one has made a habit of navigating the anxiety of adult existence in compelling ways, or that one has made a habit of being anxious?

My genuine worry is that the idea of success ends up just allowing you to hide your anxiety under a financial security blanket or behind the armor of professional reputation. Importantly, though, there is no investment strategy that overcomes the human condition of being finite. There is no professional status that ultimately protects us from the fear of being alone.

Wow. I am quickly realizing that this “inspirational” talk is not inspirational in the ways that you might have expected (or in the ways I had planned), but funny things happen when we allow ourselves to put question marks where everyone else puts periods.

I often tell my philosophy students that we should take seriously what others take for granted. I actually think that this is a good approach to the idea of entrepreneurship, innovation, and disruptive business practices as well.

Think about it.

We remember Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Serena Williams differently from the rest because they didn’t just change the score, they changed the game.

So, my question to you all is what game are you playing? Is it one that you have inherited from others such that the rigidity of the rules is changing who you are? Or are the rules changing because of the way you play? The fact that you are all being recognized here tonight makes me think that the latter is the case. You are not just game-players; you are rule-makers. You are not simply doing a job, but instead you are leaving a legacy into which others will then live.

Or so I hope.

Hope, like history, is a dynamic and yet sticky thing. Hope clings to us when we refuse to let it go—regardless of circumstance, irrespective of situation. The most inspirational stories of hope are those that highlight individuals who refused to give despair the last word even when so many others did. Hope changes history because it opens spaces for telling a different story.

Think about heroes of hope like Martin Luther King, Jr., Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Viktor Frankl, and countless others who stood against oppression, disease, poverty, suffering, and critique in the name of what seemed impossible. It is due to the lives of such people that we are now able to ask “why not?” about such things as civil rights, disability opportunities, women’s rights, and social justice, rather than simply be overwhelmed by the weight of bemoaning “why” things have to be the way they are.

Being young and successful is a blessing because it makes the future a space of possibility is more direct ways than it might otherwise be. Yet, with great power comes great responsibility. Being recognized for what you have managed to achieve, to do, and to be at such a young age also means that others look to you for what they should do in light of what the world is going to become.

I am incredibly impressed by what you have already done (reading your bios is silly intimidating!). But, I am more interested in what you will do. I am less concerned in who you are, than in who you are trying to become.

Business or busyness – notice that the difference is one that disappears if we are not careful. It requires our constant attention, our constant effort, to keep our business from becoming nothing other than that which serves to keep us busy.

Business or busyness or bisignis? Notice that if I pronounce them all closer to their historical roots, they blend together.

How will we hear what threatens to become silent? How will we see what threatens to become invisible?

In order to get some help on this front, let’s turn to a philosopher not often mentioned at gatherings such as these. Jacques Derrida was an Algerian Jew who wrote in French, he was born in 1930 and died in 2004 at the age of 74. He famously wrote an essay entitled “Différance” in which he showed how the transition between an ‘a’ and an ‘e’ was something we could see, but not hear.

Through that simple point, he was able to speak to the ways in which we tend to ignore the small stuff because it doesn’t yet demand our attention – too busy with what is currently facing us today, we fail to anticipate what might be coming tomorrow. Flash floods are bad, but the leak that goes unacknowledged for years can often be worse.

We have all heard that we can’t sweat the small stuff. Well, let me encourage you to realize that, like history and hope, the most important things often hide in plain sight and tend to get overlooked as a result. When we pay attention to the small stuff, the things others forget about, or simply refuse to see, we resist the slide from business to busyness. The simple différance between an ‘a’ and an ‘e’, or between an ‘i’ and a ‘y’, ends up making all the difference!

The mundane encouragement not to sweat the small stuff is meant to help us avoid the historical tie between business and anxiety, but when we ignore the small stuff we forget how easy it is to think that everything is a really big deal!

My wife has told me for 17 years that I operate according to the logic of “if I can just make it to” – if I can just make it to the summer break, then I will have time to take my son fishing; if I can just make it to tenure, then I can slow down a bit; if I can just make it to next Thursday then I will be able to take a day off; if I can just make it to 40 then I will be able to rethink my priorities; if I can just make it to retirement, then I will be able to enjoy myself more; if I can just make it to . . . The problem is that we can never quite make it.

When we think life is about accomplishment, we forget that we must already be living in order to accomplish anything.

When we realize that business and busyness are too often indistinguishable, we might be able to realize that even the big stuff that caused us anxiety at 28 or 32 or 34 is likely to be small stuff when we are 50, 64, or 81. But, if we can figure out how to see it as small stuff now, then maybe we can realize that the “small stuff” like investing in personal relationships, realizing time is limited and precious, and being defined by our character rather than by our portfolio, such “small” things are all actually the really, really big stuff.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you a leader in business because you invite others to live into their hopes as they understand their histories, or because you just keep them too busy to pay attention to anything else?
  • Are you recognized as the best and brightest under 35 because you are taking the time to look under the old carpet and scratch away the dog painting, or because you have refused to challenge the status quo?

Inspiration is about taking a breath to continue moving forward. That is what I have hoped to do here tonight. I have tried to be inspirational, without being patronizing.

You are all the sort of people that I hope to have as friends and I hold up to my students as models of how to live. But, don’t forget that even though we can’t hear the difference/différance between an ‘a’ and an ‘e’, and even though we may think we are too busy to care much about this business/busyness occurring between an ‘i’ and a ‘y’, we can easily see the difference between someone who understands success as a matter of being better, and busier, than others, and someone who views success as having made it possible that others be more effectively about the business of living and loving well.

This is a différance that makes all the difference.

Ok, so let’s get down to business.

Thank you.

 

“The Failure of Success”

My recent TedX talk, “The Failure of Success” is now available on youtube. I would love to hear any thoughts that you might have about it – feel free to comment here so that I can respond to you.  Thank you all for thinking with me.

Here is the abstract of the talk:
“What do you desire most in life? This question has high stakes indeed! In this talk, the philosopher J. Aaron Simmons offers an account of the difference between a life defined by the desire for success and a life defined by the desire for faithfulness. Understanding faith to mean risking ourselves in the direction of what we take to matter most, Simmons demonstrates that if you seek success as the ultimate goal, then you are likely to fail at the task of existence itself.”

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.

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.