A Lived Theology of The Encounter: Deconstructive Selfhood and the Religion of DMX

Written by: J. Aaron Simmons and Jonathan R. Stadler

***This essay was written in 2008 and accepted for publication at the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture but was never able to be published due to copyright concerns with lyrics. We are posting it here for the first time in memory of DMX (Earl Simmons) who died today. RIP DMX.

**** This essay features lyrics by DMX that are likely to be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

“If we would be honest about it, we could talk about how complex our real theologies are.  Not our written ones, but our lived ones.”

Michael Eric Dyson[1]

“Rappers are engaged in a culture war.  They are reinterpreting, reframing, and reconstructing a social and religious worldview through lyrics and rhymes that provide an alternate ultimate orientation, to borrow a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich.  In short, they are constructing a theology”

Ralph C. Watkins[2]


Postmodern philosophy is often taken to be closely affiliated with the Nietzschean claim that “God is Dead.”  There have certainly been plenty of examples of thinkers that have to some extent embraced the apparently “atheistic” implications of postmodernism.  For example, according to Sartre, either there is God or there is freedom.  Similarly, according to Heidegger, philosophy must display a “God-less” approach to thinking in order that the important questions can be really heard as questions.  However, what we might term postmodern atheism is certainly not simply a negation of classical theism.  Indeed, Sartre took quite seriously the important existential task that accompanies the practice of “becoming an atheist,” and Heidegger even claims that the “God-less” thinking he advocates might be closer to the divine than classical onto-theology.  Things are made even more complicated when one reads Kierkegaard alongside Nietzsche as being one of the originators of the generally postmodern turn.  Kierkegaard’s decided task of trying to take seriously what it means to “become a Christian” is itself what gave rise to Sartre’s own alternative account.  Moreover, recent developments in continental philosophy of religion occurring in work of New Phenomenologists such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, among others, have decidedly challenged the notion that postmodern existence must be understood in non-theological ways.  For Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida, there is an important “religious” dimension to all human existence.  Although Kierkegaard was a Christian, Levinas a Jew, and Derrida someone who claimed to “rightly pass as an atheist,” they all three offer an account of how postmodern or deconstructive selfhood is best understood as essentially opened to absolute alterity (i.e., otherness).  In this sense, they all affirm a notion of subjectivity as essentially conflicted with itself because of this constitutive ethico-religious encounter with the absolute Other. 

In the attempt to work through what this postmodern (specifically theologically oriented) account of conflicted subjectivity might entail, hard core or gangsta rap (i.e., that subgenre of rap begun in the 1980s that attempted to shed light on the realities of inner-city existence) might initially seem an unlikely resource.[3]  However, we will suggest that the music of one such rapper, DMX (Earl Simmons; Dark Man-X),[4] provides a productive lens through which to consider the existential realities of postmodern religious existence.[5]  Amongst some of the most explicit, and arguably offensive, lyrics in all of rap music, DMX has included on all of his albums a spoken word “Prayer,” which is then usually followed by what could best be described as a “Christian” rap song.  What is one to make of this paradoxical presentation?  Is this just irrationality?  Is it hypocrisy?  We believe that by considering this tension in his work through the lens of deconstructive selfhood, we are better able to understand not only the reality of DMX’s lyrical depth, but also the existential complexity of postmodern religious life itself.  Now, as should already be clear, we will be approaching this issue from the perspective of continental philosophy of religion.  That said, though it is impossible not to appreciate the substantive scholarship in hip hop studies and black cultural theory, we are drawing upon this literature in the attempt to add another dimension to the current debates.  Though we will be giving analysis of some of DMX’s lyrical content, our methodology is neither primarily one of literary criticism, nor sociological cultural studies.  Instead, we will be reading DMX’s music as a text that illuminates certain trends in deconstructive approaches to religion.   

Our thesis, then, is that DMX provides a productive case study, as it were, in what postmodern religious existence involves as a lived reality.  In this way, reading DMX in conversation with postmodern philosophy allows for a possible way of making sense of Martin Luther’s famous claim that the life of the believer is one in which the individual is “simultaneously sinner and saint”:

Now notice what I said above, that the saints at the same time as they are righteous are also sinners [simul iustus et peccator]; righteous because they believe in Christ, whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but sinners because they do not fulfill the Law, are not without concupiscence, and are like sick men under the care of a physician; they are sick in fact but healthy in hope and in the fact that they are beginning to be healthy, that is, they are “being healed.”  They are people for whom the worst possible thing is the presumption that they are healthy, because they suffer a worse relapse.[6]

In DMX’s lyrics this duality between sinner and saint is presented in the way in which the themes of the “Prayer” tracks stand at odds with the themes throughout the rest of his music.  Accordingly we find the work of DMX to allow for an interpretation that reflects two aspects or dimensions of the self that vie for prominence. 

This tension between the voice of the sinner and the voice of the saint in the work of DMX allows for deconstructive selfhood to be understood as an account in which the self is defined by a constant struggle to establish its own identity in the context of social relationships to others.  This struggle is not one that can finally be resolved (at least in historical existence)—i.e., the saint wins out over the sinner—but instead is a perpetual task that demands diligence and a willingness to entertain ambiguity, complexity, and contingency in one’s life.  What results is what we will term a “theology of the encounter.”  This notion is one in which theory must meet practice and it is practice that gives rise to theory.  As Anthony B. Pinnnotes, “Snoop Dogg and others provide rudimentary elements of a theological system, a theology of rap, complete with an epistemology of encounter.”[7]  Pinn’s consideration of Snoop Dogg, and our reading of DMX here, is one in which,

The line between religious belief and life practice is often blurred.  The lyrical content with its expressed religious vision often creates a paradox.  But this is not a problem that wipes out the value or vitality of the religious imagination within rap music.[8]

We hope that our reading of DMX through the lens of deconstructive selfhood serves to contest the otherwise plausible reading of DMX as simply being irrational in certain respects and, in turn, allows for DMX to be viewed as illuminating (and perhaps even contributing to) debates of central importance to continental philosophy of religion. 

We will proceed as follows: First, we will look at how DMX’s lyrical content does seem to display contradictions that might appear problematic to anyone who would seek to understand his music.  Then, we will articulate a basic account of deconstructive selfhood by briefly considering important overlapping themes in Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida.  Third, we will return to DMX and offer suggestions as to how this deconstructive lens provides a productive way of making sense of his apparently contradictory claims.  Finally, we will conclude by suggesting ways in which DMX stands as a productive case study for philosophical and theological debates. 

On Contradictions

Contradictions are essentially problematic.  One of the fundamental rules of classical logic is the law of non-contradiction which simply states that something cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.  Accordingly, whenever we run into a claim of (A&~A) then we have sufficient reason to reject the belief or argument internal to which the contradiction is being affirmed.  One might even go as far as claiming that we are justified in concluding that any person who affirms that (A&~A) is irrational (at least as long as the contradiction continues to be affirmed).  This all seems obvious enough, and in cases such as “Joe is wearing a hat and Joe is not wearing a hat” there is not much problem with either diagnosing the contradiction as such or admitting of the irrationality of the person claiming that the proposition is true—let’s term such cases hermeneutically transparent.  Things get more complicated, however, in cases where extrapolation and more complex interpretive decisions are required—let’s term such situations hermeneutically non-transparent

Consider two possibilities of such non-transparent instances.  In case (1), a person K might not affirm that (A&~A), but simply that (A&B).  Now, clearly (A&B) is not necessarily a contradiction.  However, if we then show that B is identical to ~A or that it entails ~A then we arrive at a contradiction fairly quickly.  Alternatively, in case (2), person K might offer a claim that initially appears to be a contradiction on the order of (A&~A), but after further investigation it is shown that the claim should be actually be expressed as (A&B) since B is neither identical to ~A nor entails ~A.  Both of these situations require extrapolation from the claims as initially expressed, but in the first case we arrive at a contradiction whereas in the second case we do not.

The hermeneutic challenge of non-transparent claims varies widely.  Especially difficult, however, are statements offered from within the context of literature and music.  Often rhetorically or rhythmically framed in ways that disguise the content of the propositions being asserted, the task of determining whether something is or is not a contradiction in contemporary rap music, say, is the hermeneutic equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the pool and attempting to avoid drowning by swimming straight down.  That said, surely there are occasions where contradictions are clearly present.  Consider the two following statements from DMX:

(A) “It’s better to tell the truth than to lie. . . Violence isn’t always the key. . .  It’s better to forgive and forget. . . Give as you expect to get.” (DMX, “Ready to Meet Him,” FFBB)

(B) “Try to show [n-word] but I can only hope they see; You a little [n-word] fit right up in a 6 by 3; Layin’ up like this; Lips sewn shut eyes closed; [N-word] walk past the casket damn shorty nice pose; You was ballin [n-word] till your ass got balled out; Called out by some disrespectful ass [n-word] that go all out; I bet you thought it was real funny
Until it had to get cruddy; Me walkin off leavin you with all this bloody; What he gonna do when it’s all over for real; And the last thing you see is that steel; A blast of light that’s what he seein’ if you blast him right; Hit him in the face and hear that closed casket tight.” (DMX, “Keep Your S—t the Hardest,” FFBB)

Here we have two rather shockingly different passages from two different songs from DMX’s album “Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood.”  We can see that at least part of (A) might be understood to include a claim such as “Don’t retaliate offense with violence” and that (B) might be read to include a claim that could be expressed as “Retaliate offense with extreme violence.”  When presented in this way we might conclude that (A&B) entails (A&~A).  As such, we would then be justified to claim that DMX affirms contradictions.  If so, so much the worse for DMX as a substantive case study for philosophical inquiry.  Simply put, we take it for granted that the act of a person’s affirming contradictions stands as a sufficient condition for viewing that person as a poor choice for a philosophical conversation partner. 

The apparent contradiction affirmed by DMX above is not unique in his music.  On every one of his albums he includes a track labeled “Prayer,” and these tracks are rightly viewed as rhythmically spoken laments to God.  Themes in these prayers include: the importance of faithfulness, honesty, peace, love, being a good influence on children, rejecting wealth as the goal of life, humility, standing for God, and even respect between men and women.  Such themes stand in stark contrast to the majority of DMX’s lyrics.  For just a few examples, consider the following: In “The Professional” (DMX, TTWX) we see a hired killer talking about “stop[ing] you in your motherf—in tracks” and who comments that “I’m on the job and right now there’s more [n-word] that need to be left with a head full of lead.”  In “I’ma Bang” (DMX, TGD), the narrator claims that he will “hit you wit’ something for frontin’ that’ll end your life; then hit your crib and bend your wife.”  The final stanza of the song includes the passage “nuttin but gun firing, blap blap blap blap; cocksucka where it at; open up your back now I can see through your stomach.”  This basic refrain is echoed in “We go hard” (DMX, GC): “Yo, I leave jail smoothly, jump in the pale hooptie / F— the dick-suckin-ass [n-word] male groupies / Diplomats, you look at alliance, you shook in defiance / I’m cookin up coke, lookin for clients; I got the AK, SK, 40 cal.”  Further examples could easily be given, but what we can see in all of these passages is that the themes here are at odds with the claims offered in the “Prayer” tracks.  Surely it at least seems like DMX is internally inconsistent.  As Pinn notes about similar difficulties in the work of many rappers, “for some, there is a paradox at work, a form of existential slippage between stated commitments to a particular religious vision and the system of ethics expressed in the music.”[9]

Now, in light of these apparent inconsistencies, several conclusions could be drawn:

  1. DMX is contradictory and should not be viewed as a rational person (whether or not we decide to continue listening to his music for purposes of non-rational enjoyment, etc. remains undecided).
  2. DMX is only apparently contradictory and more work needs to be done in order to demonstrate a way of reading these thematic conflicts that overcomes the initial semblance of irrationality.
  3. Expecting rap lyrics to answer to a criterion of logical precision is simply inappropriate.[10]

We believe that option (2) is the best way forward.  Importantly, (3) could still be the case without being a major obstacle to our project here.  However, even if the contradictions in DMX are only apparent, one could still object that demonstrating that (2) obtains would only bring about a pyrrhic victory at best.  Especially given that (3) might also be the case, why would we go to the trouble of trying to argue for (2)?  Who cares if DMX is affirming contradictions or not?  Our answer is that, when read according to the interpretive frame we propose, these apparent contradictions are better understood as illustrations of a productive tension in DMX’s lyrics that actually open important spaces for thinking about the difficulties of claiming to be in a relation to God while continuing to live in the world.  In this way, we agree with Pinn that there “remains here an important tension, a battle between existential realities and religious sensibilities.”[11]  However despite this tension, “this should not mean a lack of attention paid to the nature of confrontation with the ‘religious’ that is expressed” in the work of contemporary rappers such as DMX.[12]  Indeed, we propose that it is precisely because of this tension that DMX in particular becomes so productively read alongside contemporary continental philosophy of religion. 

Deconstructive Subjectivity

When focusing on the fact that it is the explicitly “religious” portions of DMX’s authorship that create the apparent contradictions with the rest of his statements, it seems only sensible to inquire as to what it is about the relationship to God that creates such a transformation of disposition/tone/theme, etc.  One possible way to make sense of this is simply to claim that the relationship to God (in particular as expressed in certain versions of Christianity) transforms us into better people.  When applied to DMX, the problem with this interpretation is that we don’t see a shift in his writing from themes of violence, misogyny, and arrogance to the more “religious” themes of humility, peace, and love.  If we did, we might be able to conclude that at a particular point in his life he entered a relationship with God and became a different person.  In this case, the apparent contradictions would still be rightly considered contradictions, but unproblematically so given the temporal indexing his claims would now require.  Surely a thinker can change her mind about something without then being accused of irrationality or hypocrisy because of contradicting earlier positions she held.  However, this move won’t work with DMX simply because the “Prayers” span his entire authorship and are even apparently contradicted by material occurring on the same albums.  Thus, something like a developmental account of religious subjectivity is a bad interpretive option simply because the apparent contradictions occur early in his career and continue to show up throughout it. 

This reading is supported by DMX’s own account.  Although in his autobiography, DMX does not speak of God very often and though he certainly did not grow up in church,  as it were, he does indicate the early influence of his Grandmother’s religious faith: “I felt loved at my grandmother’s house. I can remember the gospel music playing on Sunday morning when I woke up, my grandmother singing “Amazing Grace.”[13]  Many years later, but still prior to his career really taking off, DMX reflects upon being chased (and shot at) by a group of individuals and he comments: “I saw those bastards about one hundred yards away—just enough space for me to get gone.  I didn’t realize then that this was the second time the Lord put his hand on my life.”[14]  Shortly thereafter, DMX was again incarcerated in Valhalla Correctional Facility and during a time in solitary confinement he claims that “one cold night I just closed my eyes and reached out, reached out for the sky.”[15]  He continues on to reflect on the connection with his early time at his Grandmother’s house: “Grandma always said the Lord was with me.  She said that all I needed was the faith, so I put her words to the test.  Would He talk to me?  Would He answer my call? . . .  That night in Valhalla, in solitary confinement, I wrote my first prayer.”[16] 

According to DMX, it is clear that his relationship to God is not something that began mid-career.  Instead, as he explains in an interview from 2001, it was prior to having much professional success that he really encountered God:

Right before my first record came out, I was lost. . .  I met a friend.  I was on the streets, and we started walking.  She looked in my eyes and said, “Yo, what’s wrong? Come with me.  I want to show you something.”  She brought me to church.  The pastor started talking to me, I broke down. It was then that I knew that there was something with this God thing for real.[17]

Hence, it is plausible to read DMX’s autobiography as a statement of how he takes the struggle between God and existential reality to be a constant across his authorship (or even entire life) rather than a turning point within it.  Hence, we find the passage from Luther that we quoted in the introduction to open room for the possibility of seeing how, even in the lyrics of DMX, a relationship with God is not something that kills one’s sinful nature (which, one might contend, would trivialize the struggles of continuing to exist in history), but simply puts it into conflict with one’s existential status as graced by God’s love.  On this reading of Luther, the religious believer is decentered by simply being two selves in the same person—a sinner and a saint.  According to such a theological perspective, never is it the case (at least on this side of the eschaton) that a person can entirely do away with the sin nature. 

Similarly, deconstructive subjectivity (when theologically oriented) understands the relationship to God to be one that ruptures the sufficiency of the self and, accordingly, to eliminate the possibility of completely overcoming one’s status as sinner.  To put it simply, the self is constituted by the call of an absolute “Other” who lays claim on “me” before I am able to claim a position of status for myself.  As Emmanuel Levinas will often say, “Here I am” is the inaugural event of subjectivity, but it is always a reply to a call that comes “before” and for which I am too late.  Given the limitations of space here, we will simply give three models of deconstructive subjectivity—that found in the work of Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida.  Each of these models highlights a different aspect of the postmodern decentered self that we take to be importantly illuminated in DMX.  For Kierkegaard, it is the secrecy of oneself to oneself.  For Levinas, it is the role of obligation and responsibility in the constitution of selfhood.  For Derrida, it is what we will call a “hermeneutic of justice” that animates our subjectivity.  We will briefly consider each in turn before moving on to some conclusions regarding the relevance of DMX to contemporary postmodern theology and philosophy.  Given how complicated the philosophies of these three thinkers are, all of the following should be read as painting with very broad-strokes. 

The Self as Secret: Kierkegaard

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard (or more appropriately Anti-Climacus) provides a vision for what (in an existentialist tone) we might call “authentic subjectivity”: “The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.”[18]  Importantly, the Danish original can bear the following translation:  “the self is established/grounded transparently in the power that set it up.” Hence, the resting of the self is very much tied to the founding of the self as such.  This should challenge those (mis)appropriations of Kierkegaard that suggest his conception of selfhood is all about active (read conscious) willing.  Largely brought about by early twentieth century French appropriations of Kierkegaard (e.g., the work of Jean Wahl[19]), Kierkegaard’s work has been too often read as advocating a notion of the solitary self that stands confidently before God.  However, if we read Fear and Trembling carefully, what we find is a story about the interpersonal agony, theological struggle, and ethical anguish of Abraham precisely because his relationship to God is always interrupted by his relation to Isaac.[20]  This reality should bear heavily on our reading of the authentic self described above.  “Resting transparently” is not a result of the power of the substantive self, but a product of the lack of power displayed by a self standing “before God.”  In relationship to God, the self is constituted as a secret even unto itself.  Transparency should be read as a claim about the inability to hide within ourselves.  The self is not closed, but fundamentally opened by the call of the “Other” (in Kierkegaard’s case, this Other is perhaps best named ‘God’). 

Kierkegaard highlights the status of the self as a secret unto itself in Fear and Trembling when (under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) he discusses Abraham’s failure to be able to explain himself to others: “Abraham remains silent—but he cannot speak.  Therein lies the distress and anxiety. . . .  The relief provided by speaking is that it translates me into the universal.”[21]  As articulated by Kierkegaard and demonstrated by Abraham, the relationship to God is a relationship to the mysterium tremendum.[22]  If the self is constituted by such a relation, then at its core, the self is also mysterious (even to itself).  The results of this situation are many, but we will highlight three in particular.  First, the relationship with God is not going to be reducible to propositional expression internal to the claims of knowledge—for such a reduction would be immediately to “translate me into the universal.”  The inadequacy of translation would yield what we could call the necessity of epistemic humility.  Second, Abraham still must act in the world—viz., he either kills Isaac or does not.  But, given the epistemic reality, he also finds himself confronted with the inability to be certain about how to act.  This can be understood as the requirement of ethical humility.  Finally, the epistemic and ethical constraints continue to press precisely because of the reality of embodied, historical, contextual, existence.  To be is to be in a particular position, to occupy a particular identity, to appropriate a particular history, and to view the future as opening a particular set of possibilities. 

Kierkegaard (or more correctly, Johannes Climacus) summarizes these three points in Concluding Unscientific Postscript when he notes that “to be finished with life before life is finished with one is not to finish the task at all.”[23]  For Kierkegaard, the self is decentered in its relation to God precisely because God constitutes the self as a secret such that existence requires a risky commitment and passionate investment within a lived context.  

The Self as Responsible: Levinas and Derrida

For Levinas, ethics is prima philosophia.  The self is defined by not only a relationship with the Other, but a responsibility to/for the Other.  In a lecture course from 1976, Levinas writes:

I am placed in the accusative case, in the place of the one accused—I lose all place.  In this sense the I [je] does not posit itself but is impoverished to the point of substituting himself, of suffering and expiating for another, and even for the other’s wrongs, to the point of expiation itself.[24]

From this passage we can quickly see that Levinas is not given to parsing words.  The self doesn’t just lose some standing, but all standing.  It is easy to understand how the self would be decentered in such a situation.  The Other challenges my ability to claim status for myself.  Indeed, according to Levinas, I am a self only insofar as I am always already given over to the Other.  The question of ethical existence, then, concerns how I will choose to take myself up in the world in light of this constitutive encounter with what he terms “absolute” alterity.  Will I recognize this original dispossession?  Or, will I cover it over by turning inward to my own egoistic desires and ignore the call that inaugurates my very subjectivity?  In the first case, I am faced with the realization that I face a task that is too big for me.  Starkly put, if I care for one person then I fail to care for millions of others.  In the second case, I live in denial (what Kierkegaard would call “despair” and Martin Heidegger would term “inauthenticity”).  Admittedly, neither of these options sounds particularly attractive.

How then can we be properly ethically directed and yet not give in to the potential quietism and resignation that would seem to accompany the realities of ethical life?  For Levinas, the answer is found in the constancy of critique.  Why Levinas advocates a democratic form of political theory is because he is committed to the notion that in democracy there is the possibility of what he will call “charity after justice.”  That is, democracy is a system that allows for perpetual questions to be asked about the extent to which our democracy is itself Other-directed rather than being self-concerned.  What Levinas is so adamant about avoiding is the assumption that we can ever be satisfied without efforts to care for the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”  This is what invites the extreme hyperbole of Levinas’s rhetorical style.  According to Derrida, Levinas once even claimed: “You know, one often speaks of ethics to describe what I do, but what really interests me in the end is not ethics, not ethics alone, but the holy, the holiness of the holy.”[25]  Ethics is not simply a claim about what one should do or how one should live, but about a theory of selfhood defined by responsibility to and for the Other.   

Here we see that Levinas and Kierkegaard can be read together regarding the way in which the self is decentered in relation to both God and the other person.  Merold Westphal nicely describes this situation: “When the Other does not get in the way of my seeing God, God will end up getting in the way of my hearing the Other.[26]  The epistemic and ethical humility in Kierkegaard meets the task of constant critique and working for justice in Levinas.  Both anticipate the late work of Derrida regarding the way in which we live here and now expecting the “democracy to come” (democratie á venir).[27]  For Derrida, to live in the world ethically is to operate according to what might be termed a hermeneutic of expected justice.  Justice is never something that we have achieved, but always something we direct ourselves towards.  This could be read as the eschatological dimension of postmodern ethics.[28] 

God, Postmodernism, and Social Justice

With this interpretive frame in place, we want to return to DMX and the apparent contradictions we discussed earlier.  We can now see how the thematic tensions between damnation and redemption, violence and love, not caring about what people think and being a good influence, being misogynistic and respecting women, etc. can all now be seen as manifestations of the constant struggle of religious selfhood between the two natures: sinner and saint.  On this model, we would be wrong to dismiss DMX as either irrational or hypocritical.  Instead, we should now view his music as an example of how this struggle internal to religious existence itself is not something that allows for a final synthetic overcoming.  To be on this side of the eschaton is to constantly wrestle with our own failures to be the person that we would like to be.  This is made especially difficult given the realities of inner-city life, institutional racism, economic disparity, etc. 

We must realize that racism, sexism, and poverty are existential challenges that serve as the backdrop for millions of people trying to follow God while continuing to be victims of injustice.  This becomes clear in DMX’s “Who We Be” (DMX, TGD):

            What they don’t know is . . .

            The bullshit, the drama, the guns, the armour

            The projects, the drugs, the children, the thugs

            The tears, the hugs, the love, the slugs

            The funerals, the wakes, the churches, the coffins

            The heartbroken mothers, it happens, too often. . .

The struggle to move forward towards a future that presents nothing but frustration could, perhaps justifiably, cause a person to give in to the rage and abandon the attempt to continue to live a life “imitatio Christi.”  But, this is not the example set by DMX.  Instead, we find the perpetual struggle to have hope in the face of despair as itself being the basic human condition.  DMX makes this split self clear towards the end of “Who We Be”:

             This here is all about . . .

            The frustration, rage, trapped inside a cage

            God beatin’s ‘til the age, I carried a twelve gauge

            Somebody stop me, somebody come and get me

            Little did I know, that the Lord was ridin with me

            The dark, the light, my heart, the fight

            The wrong, the right, it’s gone, aight. 

Here we do not find someone advocating A after having proposed ~A.  Instead, we find someone recognizing the difficulties that accompany continuing to look to God in the face of the world around him.  Being in a relationship with God is not presented here as something that transforms the individual into a saint.  Instead, it is something that serves to provide hope against hope and comfort in spite of the suffering.  From this perspective, we can read DMX as providing an account of the difficulties that face all those who continue to work towards a brighter tomorrow while seeing nothing but the darkness of midnight around them.  For DMX, the point of his lyrical content is not to be shocking or hard-core for its own sake, but in order to expose the existential realities faced by so many around the world every day.  When pressed on why his lyrics “revel in hard-core imagery and lyrics,” he responded that “It’s just real.”[29] 

DMX can, then, be read as claiming that we are always split within ourselves—viz., we claim that God will see us through and yet we continue to realize that we are in the valley of the shadow of death (now referred to as “Yonkers, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem”).  Here we should consider the following “Prayer”:

            Lord why is it that I go through so much pain

            All I saw was black and all I felt was rain

            I come to you because it’s you that knows

            To show me that everything is black

            Because my eyes were closed

            You give me light and let me bask in your glory . . .

            Plenty of times you sent help my way, but I hit

            I remember once you held me close but I slipped. (DMX, HH) 

DMX recognizes the failures that continue to plague his existence, but refuses to allow his “person” to be fully identified with the pain, rain, and blackness. 

As a further example, consider the song “My Life” from the album Grand Champ.  This song can be read as an account of how DMX constantly stands as a secret to himself:

            Earl Simmons, AKA the Dawg, getting down for real and goin hard . . .

            This is my life and ima live how I wanna live it

            Motherf—ers wanna f—in come and get it . . .

            I wanna be able to teach you blood, wanna be able to sit down and eat wit you cuz . . .

            It is my dreams, my fears, my words, that constantly fall on deaf ears . . .

            Forgive me father for I have sinned, endangered my soul I’m ready to win, let’s begin . . .

DMX begins the song by identifying himself by the name “Earl Simmons” who is also known as “The Dawg.”  This beginning might be read as an attempt to deploy pseudonyms in a way similar to Kierkegaard.  That is, he challenges anyone who would be quick to claim a certainty about his “real” name.  Indeed, one might question whether “DMX,” “Dawg,” or “Earl Simmons” is the true referent—i.e., the self behind the pseudonyms.  However, it quickly becomes clear that the person struggling with how to “name” DMX is DMX himself.  For example, though it might seem that the “deaf ears” upon which his dreams, fears, and words constantly fall are those of others, it seems just as plausible to see these ears as his own.  When he calls out to God asking for forgiveness, it seems due to his own failure to live up to the expectations of righteousness.  However, exactly what such righteousness would look like is not clear.  DMX presents himself as occupying an identity that stands as a question mark more than a period. 

This uncertainty regarding a stable identity is made all the more terrifying again given the realities of inner-city existence.  In the song “[N-word] done started something” (DMX, HH), we find the following lines:

            Bloodhounds found your shit buried in the mud

            Following traces of gun powder, residue and blood

            A positive ID is impossible, so you know

            John Doe is what they goin be putting on that tag on yo toe.

The decentered self articulated in Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida is one that is constitutively dispossessed by the Other.  Here we find DMX facing the fact that the name “John Doe” might also be the name given to him by the “other” upon his death.  The relation to God is what DMX clings to as both providing his “true” name and yet such nomination is only able to be affirmed by faith.  As he writes in “Ready to Meet Him” (DMX, FFBB):

            Lord, you left me stranded and I don’t know why

            Told me to live my life and now I’m ready to die; ready to fly

            I cry, but I shed no tears

            You told me you would dead those fears . . .

            Stop acting like you don’t know me

            What’d I do so bad that it sent you away from me

            Not only sent you away, but made you stay away from me. . .

In response, the “Lord” replies: “My child I’m here, as I’ve always been, it was you who went away.”  Drawing from these passages we might conclude that DMX is claiming that (A) “I am all alone in the world,” and (~A) “God is always with me.”  Yet, in light of postmodern philosophy of religion, we can now see that this is not really a contradiction, but merely a statement about how the relation to God is something that requires subjective risk.  There is no self that can rest secure in the “knowledge” of God’s presence without at the same time being confronted with the question of God’s apparent absence in a world of turmoil. 

We claim that the very tension in DMX’s lyrics effectively present the risk that is internally constitutive of the life of faith.  Following Kierkegaard, the point is to recognize that life continues—God does not lift believers up out of existence, but promises to be with them as they keep moving forward.  As Michael Eric Dyson notes:

Our faith can give us the comfort that God walks with us, and will not forsake us.  That may seem like small solace in the face of our finitude.  But the knowledge that God refuses to let us go ultimately calms the soul in distress.  That is the only guarantee we have that the universe that has betrayed us at one turn through the perils of nature will stand behind us through the divine Word.[30]

When read in the context of the black church’s general emphasis on the way in which the relation to God is not irrelevant to the evils of political existence,[31] we can understand the insight of Dyson’s claim that for rappers like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, their lyrics “speak directly to the question of black suffering and what’s known in theological circles as ‘the problem of evil.”[32]  Along with Biggie and Tupac, we propose that DMX profoundly articulates a “grassroots secular urban theodicy.”[33]  In the very tension between the saint and sinner in DMX’s music, we also find epistemic humility, ethical humility, and an honesty about the struggle of embodied existence all being deployed.  This is what creates the apparent contradictions, but also what allows us to better describe them as paradoxical tensions of a decentered subjectivity that always already stands before God and/or the Other while in the midst of so many needy others.    

Conclusion: Theology in the midst of Existence

Postmodern considerations of religion (whether occurring internal to psychological or philosophical discourse) are not simply about God, but always about who we are in relation to God and other people.  We cannot step outside of existence to survey the truth of existence.  Instead, we can only move forward in both humility and gratitude—often without clear guidance as to the correct path, but confident that we should continue to seek charity after justice and work towards the democracy to come.  Perhaps in light of deconstructive subjectivity, the most genuine prayer that one can pray is for the ability to continue to stand for a better tomorrow while living here and now.   As Anthony B. Pinn suggests, in contemporary rap, as well as, we believe, in continental philosophy of religion, “the line between religious belief and life practice is often blurred.”[34]  Pinn continues:

The lyrical content with its expressed religious vision often creates a paradox.  But this is not a problem that wipes out the value or vitality of the religious imagination within rap music. . . . Recognizing the great difficulty with which humans exercise and explain the religious, explicit theological or religious pronouncements in rap music are worth one’s time and attention not because of perfection of practice but because of what they say about the musically expressed encounter with questions of meaning, those with great existential and ontological weight.[35]

DMX himself admits the difficulty of wrestling with such weight.  In an interview published in Vibe magazine in 2001, DMX is asked how he “juxtaposes the worlds of religion and rage, of prayer and pistols,” and he replies, “I’m working on it.  I don’t have all the answers yet.”[36]  Though one might desire that DMX had an explicitly worked out theory of how to reconcile these tensions in his lyrics, such a complete account might actually threaten to undermine the messiness with which religious existence must be constantly lived.  The decentered self is one that never allows for a triumphalism of theologico-epistemic certainty.  Instead, what results is a humble attempt to move forward in relation to God and the other person.   

Recognizing that knowledge might need to begin in trust and certainty replaced by fragile confidence, the music of DMX challenges any claims to a stable self identity and can be interpreted as being an example of what might be termed a theology of the encounter.  This theological trajectory is one that would occur at the intersection of religious tradition, aesthetic performance, hermeneutic appropriation, and social existence.  As Watkins suggests, “in the case of God-conscious rap there is a circular (rather than linear) relationship in the semiotic process.”[37]  “In this semiotic convention,” he continues, “there is (1) the rap music; (2) the appropriation of religious symbols and signs; and (3) the interpretants seeking meaning within the context of the social arrangements.”[38]  Resulting from this circular semiotics, Watkins suggests, is the “construction of a socio-theo-rap-ology.”[39]  In harmony with Watkins’s stress upon the socio-theological dimension of God-conscious rap, is our proposal that deconstructive selfhood emphasizes the inescapable rootedness of theological speculation.  The relation to God is only possible in a shared social space.  This is what the theology of the encounter understands.  There is no effective theology that stands separate from an account of what it would mean to be constitutively engaged with the Other.  This is why theory and practice cannot be radically pulled apart from each other and why affirming an absolute priority of one over the other is unsustainable. 

That said, exactly what is encountered in the lived space considered by a theology of the encounter is not clear—surely it includes God, other people, injustice, love, hate, etc.—but by demonstrating the paradoxical tensions that are constitutive of postmodern subjectivity, DMX invites us all to overcome the arrogance that can accompany the claim to have achieved sainthood, and the nihilism that can accompany despair.  Life involves a bit of both and, along with Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Derrida, DMX rather “explicitly” helps us see that. 

Michael Eric Dyson points out that “in black religion, there is little substance or benefit to knowing God without doing, or performing, one’s knowledge of God.”[40]  The relationship between black churches and liberation theology is not merely an accidental reality.[41]  Indeed, part of the power of the Christian narrative within the black church lies in its exhibition of God on the side of the marginalized, the oppressed, and the despairing.  Dyson nicely reinforces this point:

A great source of hope to black Christians is the belief that God identifies with our condition as the underdog.  That’s why the stories of Christ’s birth in the gospels are carefully read and heavily leaned on: they express the fact that God sides with the homeless, the oppressed, those besieged by the state, those who are the victims of political terror.  When God was born in a manger as Jesus, it showed just how far God was willing to go to prove to humanity that God loves us.[42]

Despite the fact that deconstructive selfhood provides a model of theological existence that is deeply politically invested, it can still sometimes become tempting to see the work of Derrida and Levinas, for example, as significantly detached from the existential realities in which so many live.  DMX’s gritty presentation of the struggle to live a saintly life in the midst of daily turmoil stands as a possible practical supplement to the work of academic philosophy and theology in a time of (or perhaps after) the “hip-hop generation.”[43]


[1] Michael Eric Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now? The Inspiration, Wisdom, and Insight of Michael Eric Dyson (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2009), 27. 

[2] Ralph C. Watkins, “Rap, Religion, and New Realities: The Emergence of a Religious Discourse in Rap Music,” in Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music, ed. Anthony B. Pinn (New York and London: New York University Press, 2003), 184-92, 186.

[3] Though in light of the excellent work of scholars beginning to work at the intersection of religious studies and hip hop scholarship, this assumption might not hold true for long.  For example, see Pinn, Noise and Spirit; and Michael Eric Dyson, Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[4] For more on DMX, see DMX and Smokey D. Fontaine, E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).  All quotations from DMX’s music are cited with permission.  The lyrics are drawn from www.lyricstime.com (though at certain places these quotations have been edited slightly due to explicit content).  Accessed October 4, 2008.  Abbreviations for DMX’s albums used within this paper are as follows:

YOTD. Year of the Dog . . . Again. Sony Records. 2006.

GC. Grand Champ. Def Jam Records. 2003.

TGD. The Great Depression. Def Jam Records. 2001.

TTWX. And Then There Was X. Def Jam Records. 1999.

HH. It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. Def Jam Records. 1998.

FFBB. Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Def Jam Records. 1998.

[5] There has certainly been a growing literature working at the intersection of contemporary philosophy and hip hop.  For just a few examples, see the essays in Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason, eds. Derrick Darby and Tommie Shelby (Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 2005).  Additionally, some of the main texts in black cultural studies that are informing our approach to the topic include: Houston A. Baker, Jr. Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993); Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, eds., That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); Jacqueline Bobo, Cynthia Hudley, and Claudine Michel, eds., The Black Studies Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004); Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, eds., The Black Feminist Reader (Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2007); Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994). 

[6] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Vol. XXV: Lectures on Romans, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 336.

[7] Anthony B. Pinn, “Introduction: Making a World with a Beat: Musical Expression’s Relationship to Religious Identity and Experience,” in Noise and Spirit, 1-26, 18.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pinn suggests as much when he claims that apparent paradoxes in the lyrical content of certain rappers “might point to the linguistic ‘playfulness’ within the music, drawn from vernacular practices within black oral and aesthetic traditions.  In other words, it is quite likely that much of what is expressed in rap music is not meant to be taken literally, in the same manner in which numerous biblical stories are quite troubling if taken literally” (Ibid).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] DMX and Fontaine, E.A.R.L., 34. 

[14] Ibid., 203.

[15] Ibid., 209.

[16] Ibid., 209-210

[17] Heidi Siegmund Cuda, “Gods and Monsters,” Vibe (October 2001): 90-96, 94-95.

[18] Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 14. Anti-Climacus will repeat this claim repeatedly throughout the text: “[T]he self is healthy and free from despair only when, precisely by having despaired, it rests transparently in God” (30); “[T]he formula for the state in which there is no despair at all: in relating itself to itself and in wiling to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it” (131).

[19] See J. Aaron Simmons, “Existential Appropriations: Jean Wahl’s Influence on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard,” in Kierkegaard and Levinas: Ethics, Politics, and Religion, eds. J. Aaron Simmons and David Wood (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 41-66.

[20] For more one how Isaac stands as the engine of Abraham’s ordeal, see J. Aaron Simmons, God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), chapter 2.

[21] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 113.

[22] See also, Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[23] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Scientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Vol. I, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 164.

[24] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 162.

[25] Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 4.

[26] Merold Westphal, “Levinas’s Teleological Suspension of the Religious,” in Ethics as First Philosophy: The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature, and Religion, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak (New York: Routledge, 1995), 151-60, 158.

[27] Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West have both argued that there is a deeply democratic impulse within the history of such movements as jazz, the blues, and the black church.  See, Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now? and Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007); West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982); The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (New York: Penguin Books, 2004). For more on the development of black political thought, see Michael C. Dawson, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).  

[28] For more on the relationship between eschatology and continental philosophy, see J. Aaron Simmons and Nathan R. Kerr, “From Necessity to Hope: A Continental Perspective on Eschatology Without Telos,” Heythrop Journal 50, no. 6 (Fall, 2009): 948-65. For a good account of how postmodernism should be understood in particular ways in light of African-American contributions, see Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). 

[29] Cuda, “Gods and Monsters,” 96.

[30] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 21.

[31] For just a few excellent considerations of the history, culture, and political activism of the black church, see Hans A. Baer, The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984); Hans A. Baer and Merrill Singer, African-American Religion in the Twentieth Century: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992); Andrew Billingsley, Mighty Like an Army: The Black Church and Social Reform (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Fredrick C. Harris, Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African-American Popular History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Milton C. Sernett, ed. African-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, 2nd Edition (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992); Joseph R. Washington, Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984); and Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr., eds. African American Religious Thought: An Anthology (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).

[32] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 235.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Pinn, “Introduction,” 18.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Cuda, “Gods and Monsters,” 96.

[37] Watkins, “Rap, Religion, and New Realities,” 188.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 35.

[41] See James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990).

[42] Dyson, Can You Hear Me Now?, 23-24.

[43] For debate surrounding the “hip hop generation” see Bakari Kitwana, The Hip Hop Generation (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005); and M.K. Asante, Jr., It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).  Further, Daniel Grassian does a very nice job of showing how the hip hop generation stands as a crucial resource for the future of literary studies (Writing the Future of Black America: Literature of the Hip Hop Generation (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2009)).

Inspiration, Innovation, and Ideation from Plato to the Wu-Tang

light pic

“Cash rules everything around me, CREAM,
get the money, dolla dolla bill, y’all”
Wu Tang Clan

“Money ain’t a thing if I got it.”
Joey Bada$$

Let me suggest that far from being useless, or impractical, philosophy is the most concrete, on the ground, relevant to daily life thing that you can study. Simply put, whatever we do for a living, we are all trying to live lives that matter. It seems to me that we should take that task seriously.

I want to invite you all to do a little philosophy with me as we think together about the importance of three ideas that I take to be foundational to living well as virtuous people, as strong leaders, as successful companies, and as flourishing communities:

  • Inspiration
  • Innovation
  • Ideation

Let’s see what we might be able to learn about these ideas from thinkers ranging from Plato to the Wu Tang, and how we can effectively enact them in our daily lives in transformative ways.


“My whole thing is to inspire, to better people,
to better myself forever in this thing that we call rap,
this thing that we call hip hop.”
Kendrick Lamar

Inspiration is simply the act of breathing. It is the most basic requirement of human existence. In some sense, we might say that life is entirely lived between suffocation and hyperventilation.

So long as we don’t do anything remarkable, we will probably navigate this particular existential challenge just fine on our own, but as soon as we strive to do something in excess of the ordinary – to sing, to run, to climb mountains, to free dive, etc., we have to be taught how to breathe properly in order to accomplish the task most effectively. For this reason, it is not unimportant that meditation encourages a focus on one’s breath.

In an ancient Jewish tradition, it is said that since God breathed life into inert flesh in order to bestow personhood and dignity on humans, the very name of God (YHWH) continues to animate that flesh with every breath. Try it. Take a deep breath in and then breathe out. Listen to your breath – yyyyhhhh….wwwwwhhhhh.

At its most basic, then, being inspirational is helping someone else to learn how to breathe properly. And yet, what makes sense for breathing in a marathon may not be appropriate for a sprint. Inspiration is not a one size fits all sort of thing. What works for one person might not for another. Genuine leaders are those who recognize that not everyone is trapped in the same cave, as it were, and yet everyone requires their next breath in order to take the steps necessary to climb out.

Let’s stick with  this image of a cave for a minute. Consider Plato’s cave, specifically. For Plato the point is not simply to get out of the cave of shadows (ignorance), but to go back in and bring others out into the light (knowledge/goodness). But, when they get into the light, they are likely to move in a variety of different directions – as they should. Inspiring others should never be confused with getting others to think like you do. The goal is to inspire them to think for themselves.

However, it is important not to hyperventilate trying to give CPR to others. When the air masks fall from the ceiling of planes, you put it on yourself first, because if you pass out, you can’t help anyone else. So, inspire others but don’t forget that you are not immortal. We can inspire others most when we are vulnerable enough to show them that sometimes we too struggle to breathe.


“Emit light rap, or Emmett Till”

I am a big fan of the rapper, Rapsody. In this passage, she presents us with an essential question: Are we emitting light to others by providing them opportunities to avoid the horror described by Thoreau of coming to the end of one’s life and realizing that you had not yet lived? Or, are we simply going through the motions such that we are dead long before we ever got a chance to live?

Innovation matters because we are mortal beings. We all have a “use by” date that requires us to realize that we only have a limited time to do whatever it is that we think needs done. As Todd May reminds us, even though we might wish for an infinite amount of time, were our wish granted it would inevitably lead to a life defined by boredom and eventual meaninglessness.

Meaning happens in the context of our having to make choices about what matters. We should be innovative, then, simply because living things grow and change. However, change is only possible in relation to what remains the same. If everything changes, then there isn’t change, there is just disconnected moments. So, the trick is to figure out how to innovate while remaining connected to a larger narrative.

Let me propose that the most fundamental narrative underlying all innovation is the human condition itself. Ours is a story about the fact that we are vulnerable, that we are finite, and that we die, but also that we are capable of reverence, joy, and beauty.

Leaders are able to support innovation most effectively when they realize that productive change is not about being different from everyone else, but about tapping into that thing that unites us all such that we transform the situation in which that condition is lived out.

The task is to figure out how to innovate in ways that are life giving insofar as they enable the limited time that we have to be used more effectively, more intentionally, and more meaningfully.

After presenting us with the choice between being innovation (life) and stagnation (death), Rapsody continues on to say:

“Y’all can have the bars, I spit hard metal gates
Henry Louis Gates when I cop me some new estate
Make room for myself, I’m in a way different mental place
I keep it real, all ya’ll look anime.”

Innovation is not simply something that a few successful people do. It is the thing that living things do they recognize that they are not fundamentally in a race against others, but require others in order to stay on a path worth walking.

Innovate because you, like me, like everyone, are mortal. Innovation will not help us to escape death, but it will open spaces for living meaningfully here and now. We should avoid being simply repetitive anime characters while also striving to prevent a world in which Emmett Till’s story can end the way that it did. Doing so requires a “way different mental place,” but it is well worth learning to breathe appropriately in order to get there.


There might seem to be a big difference between Wu Tang’s claim about cash ruling everything around us and Joey Bada$$’s claim that money ain’t a thing if you got it. And yet, they are both saying the same thing, just from different perspectives.

One way to think about how to view things from different perspectives is by engaging in the practice of ideation. As most of you probably know, ideation is the third step in the Design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Importantly, ideation is the practice of trying to find ways to think differently about a problem that has become visible by stepping into the shoes of another person’s experience.

I think that C.S. Lewis’s distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” is helpful here. Lewis tells a story about walking into a dark shed and noticing that there is a hole in the roof through which a beam of light appeared. Lewis notes that as long as we look “at” the beam, we will only ever see it as an object for scientific inquiry, but never as the subject of a life. Yet, when we walk over and allow the beam of light to fall on our eyes, we can look “along” it and see the sky beyond full of trees, birds, and color. When we look along the beam, we are invited to see the world differently because we move beyond mere analysis and step into enactment.

As such, when we recognize that our perspective is always necessarily limited, we become open to the idea that the perspectives of others are rarely immoral or irrational. Instead, they are views that we might hold if things had gone differently for us.

When we foster a culture of ideation we enable others to look at things differently. To look along the different beams by which others see the world. In doing so, we do not simply increase our understanding, but transform our understanding of what matters. In the end, ideation is about the world creation that is made possible by being willing to try on different ways of seeing things. In the shared experience of looking along other beams, we begin to envision new horizons that are now visible by us all.

On Sunglasses and Bright Futures 

Using only one flashlight will always leave the majority of what surrounds you in darkness. We need each other in order to see beyond where we can see on our own.

In the end, when we inspire others to breathe appropriately for the task of living, when we encourage others to innovate and grow as required by meaningful existence, and when we enable others to innovate by realizing that precious little is obvious, we invite others to realize that the genuine goal should not be simply to navigate the “real world,” but to rethink what world should become real.

Listen to the following decidedly philosophical account from the group, Flobots:

So much pain, we
Don’t know how to be but angry
Feel infected like we’ve got gangrene
Please don’t let anybody try to change me

Just me
In the middle of a sea full of faces
Full of faces
Some laugh some salivate
What’s in your alleyway
Recycling bins or bullet cases

It’s not equal
It’s not fair
Were different people
But were not scared
We ain’t never scared
To pave a new path
Make a new street
Build a new bridge

Say can you see by the dawns early light
Free slaves running
Songs words weren’t right
Now a new days coming
The few stay stunning while the many are handsome
Your soul is alive but they want it for ransom
The base drumming is the anthem
We step to the heartbeats of our granddaughters and grandsons
And rise
Together We Rise

Here the Flobots remind us that when we give in to the “obvious” then we leave things to stagnate. Don’t give into what is easy because it is what “they” do. The “many” will always move in the direction of inertia, so it is necessary to change the direction of the flow.

When we realize that light is cumulative, then we can begin to inspire, innovate, and ideate in ways that don’t simply change our company, or our community, but change the way that we conceive of the future itself as a space of possibility.

But, look, the future is bright if and only if we ourselves continue to become these lights in a world threatened by darkness.

The darkness of ignorance, of poverty, of disease, of despair, of division is very real indeed. And yet, due to the work of the inspirational, innovative, and ideative people in our communities, there is reason to think that the darkness is being chased to the corners and shown the door.

May we all inhabit a future where the darkness itself becomes light, where we not only wear shades because our future is so bright (as the song says), but where it is necessary to “wear our sunglasses at night” (as the other song says!). That future, that world, that vision, is possible when we begin to breathe, to grow, and to inhabit the perspectives of others.


***This talk was originally presented as the keynote address for the Greenville Business Magazine’s 2019 “Best and Brightest Under 35 Event”

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.

“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)


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?


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.”



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)


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. 


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.”


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:



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

“It kinda depends on how much homework I have”

“Oh yeah.”


“Why is that?”

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

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


“Isn’t this Josh?”

“No, this is Kate.”



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.


It’s her again.


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.