Just recently returned from the fourth Postmodernism, Culture and Religion Conference entitled: The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. The conference was at Syracuse University and included some of the best thinkers in Continental Philosophy. What follows will be a very poor, non-academic attempt to make some sense of the whole thing.
“What is continental philosophy?”, some of you might ask. Good question. When you find out – drop me a line. Actually, it often refers to philosophy that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in mainland Europe, in opposition to much of the analytic philosophy happening in Britain. Important names paving the way for this include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, among others.
Here are some common themes, borrowed from wikipedia:
- First, continental philosophers generally reject scientism, the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding phenomena.
- Second, continental philosophy usually considers these conditions of possible experience as variable: determined at least partly by factors such as context, space and time, language, culture, or history. Thus continental philosophy tends toward historicism. Where analytic philosophy tends to treat philosophy in terms of discrete problems, capable of being analyzed apart from their historical origins (much as scientists consider the history of science inessential to scientific inquiry), continental philosophy typically suggests that “philosophical argument cannot be divorced from the textual and contextual conditions of its historical emergence”.
- Third, continental philosophy typically holds that conscious human agency can change these conditions of possible experience: “if human experience is a contingent creation, then it can be recreated in other ways”.Thus continental philosophers tend to take a strong interest in the unity of theory and practice, and tend to see their philosophical inquiries as closely related to personal, moral, or political transformation.
- A final characteristic trait of continental philosophy is an emphasis on metaphilosophy. In the wake of the development and success of the natural sciences, continental philosophers have often sought to redefine the method and nature of philosophy. In some cases (such as German idealism or phenomenology), this manifests as a renovation of the traditional view that philosophy is the first, foundational, a priori science. In other cases (such as hermeneutics, critical theory, or structuralism), it is held that philosophy investigates a domain that is irreducibly cultural or practical.
If any of that made sense, you’re in good shape. If not, read it again a time or two. Here’s a final thought: “Ultimately, the foregoing distinctive traits derive from a broadly Kantian thesis that the nature of knowledge and experience is bound by conditions that are not directly accessible to empirical inquiry.” In other words, there’s more than meets the eye. Sensory experience and the material world can only get us so far. If you’ve ever been to an evening of Pub Theology, you know these kinds of ideas come up again and again.
It is this line of thinking that makes continental philosophy more open to questions of God, theology and religion than its analytical counterpart. In this conference comprised primarily of philosophy and religion professors of secular universities, the themes of God and religion were ever present.
A few important names present included Catherine Malabou, Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris, John Caputo, Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Syracuse University, Philip Goodchild, Professor of Philosophy, Nottingham University, Merold Westphal, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Fordham University, B. Keith Putt, Samford University, Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity, Harvard University, and Thomas Altizer, who was not formally involved in the conference, but did not fail to make his presence known through insightful and always lively comments and questions. Also there was Jim Olthuis from the Institute for Christian Studies. It was especially meaningful to have Caputo and Westphal there, as they are retiring from their academic posts (though probably not from writing and speaking!).
Paper topics that made complete sense to me: “Plasticity in the Contemporary Islamic Subject“; “Future Blindness“; “Postmodern Apocalypse: Placing Levinas & Derrida in Line with Transcendental Methodology“; “Non-Philosophy and Meaning-use Analysis: Explicating Laruelle with Brandom“, and finally “Dying to be Free: Extinction and the Liberation of Praxis in Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound.”
But for all the tough paper topics, there were also ones that made more immediate sense to me: “Does the Religious Intellectual Have a Future? Harvey Cox, Post-Secular Spirituality, and Living Religiously in Public“; “The Broken Binary & Interstitial God: Finding Faith in the Margin of the Text“; “Radical Theology and the Dangerous Memory of Jesus“; “‘Eating Well’ in Church: In-carnating an A/Theological Materialism”; and the very clear: “Philosophy is What it Eats.”
So what was I doing there, as a pastor?
Great question. Mostly I needed an excuse to put a ton of miles on my new van. Actually – as soon as the first session started, Christy was wondering the same thing. The first presenter in the panel we chose started reading her paper and, while a very profound paper, almost never looked up and had very little voice inflection. In other words, she could have been reading an obituary or grocery list. I worried we had picked the wrong panel (there were often 4-5 panels on various topics going on at once). But then we remembered that this was an *academic* conference, not a *church* conference, and that at these things you read your paper, you don’t preach it. So once we were able to focus, and the big words and unfamiliar names began to become more familiar, we began to realize this was about stuff we care about. Stuff we all care about: issues of faith and reason; God and theology; knowing and unknowing; certainty and uncertainty; life and death. The very same things I deal with as a pastor, and we all deal with as human beings. Issues of vital importance for the Christian who is seeking to engage our world today. And not incidentally, a recurring topic that continually came up was, how do we connect some of this stuff to real life? How do we engage the culture in thinking seriously about important topics? It was cool to meet student after student (as well as professors) who thought it was excellent Christy and I were there. They wanted to know what we were doing, what our community is like, and how we apply of this kind of thinking to our work. (The irony is many in academia long for such ‘real-world’ activism, and how people like me, in the so-called ‘real-world’, long for the high-level thinking of academia. The grass is always greener).
A great example of how philosophy and life in the church connect is found in the book by John Caputo: What Would Jesus Deconstruct? In this book Caputo draws on the deconstruction tradition of Jacques Derrida to tear down some of the ossified walls that have built up in the church over the years – and allows the light of day to penetrate. This book is a delightful read and I would recommend it to anyone. From the backcover: “Many in the church who are wrestling with ministry in a postmodern era view deconstruction as a negative aspect of the postmodern movement. But John Caputo, one of the leading philosophers of religion in America and a leading voice on religion and postmodernism, sees it differently. In this lively and provocative analysis, he argues that in his own way Jesus himself was a deconstructionist and that applying deconstruction to the church can be a positive move toward renewal.”
John Franke, professor of theology at Biblical Seminary, notes: “This is a marvelous little book. It enables readers to understand deconstruction as the hermeneutics of the kingdom of God and provides a glimpse of what this concept might look like in the hands of Jesus as applied to the church. This will be difficult therapy, and many of us will be inclined to resist. However, let us remember that while discipline is painful in the moment, it produces a harvest of peace and righteousness in the long run. May the church learn from the wisdom found in these pages.”
Another person who has gained a lot of traction in making some of these connections is Peter Rollins, an increasingly popular writer and speaker. Pete has a PhD in philosophy from Queens University in Northern Ireland, and has made his readings of philosophy become incarnate in both his work at Ikon, a faith collective in Belfast, and in his books and speaking events. He recently spoke at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, and his work is so intriguing in making real, tangible connecting points that he was the subject of one of the panel discussions at this conference. An excellent paper looking at his work theologically and philosophically was delivered by religion professor Creston Davis: “The Cosmic Double-Cross: The Psycho-Christ Event”, and another paper was delivered by sociologist Gerardo Marti entitled: “Peter Rollins and the Deconstructed Church: How Pub Churches, Continental Philosophy, and Provocative Preaching is Shaping the Future of Emerging Christianity.”
If you’ve read Pete’s book of parables: The Orthodox Heretic, and Other Impossible Tales, you’ll appreciate the power this kind of thinking can have to push us into rediscovering the kingdom of God in our thinking and acting.
Another very intriguing paper was delivered by Daniel Peterson of Seattle University and G. Michael Zbaraschuk of Pacific Lutheran University entitled: “Giving up God for Lent: Resurrecting the Death of God.” It gave a lot to chew on regarding whether in evangelicalism we are worshiping the God who is, or a God we have invented; if the latter, then perhaps that God needs to die.
One of things I took from the conference is that we may have very different ideas about what different parts of faith are – doctrines, teachings, etc., but the bottom line on many levels is – how am I living it out? What is the material reality present because of my theological convictions? How does this play out in real life?
In any case, it was an excellent time and will surely continue to push my own thinking, living and commitment to living out a life of following Jesus. Made some new friends, including our host Wendy DeBoer, PhD student at Syracuse, and Dan Wood, theology student at Loyola in Chicago (fellow crasher of Wendy’s pad), and other students from the Syracuse Religion Department and elsewhere, including a crew from Cornerstone University (fellow Michiganders!), Harvard Divinity School and UC-Berkley. Also hung out with some old friends, including Pete Rollins, ate some good food, and hit a post-conference party with most of the folks involved – where a bit of alcohol cleared up everything. Also met a professor from Dordt College at the conference – showing that this stuff infiltrates even the corn-fields of Calvinist conservatism! (OK, that was unfair).
So if we ask, along with Caputo, “What would Jesus deconstruct?” what would we find? The answer is, first and foremost, the church! See my next post for a deconstruction of that deconstruction.