Thursday, October 29, 2009

What do you get...?

While going through old papers, I found this little gem: a list of philosophical jokes of the form, "What do you get when you cross X with Y?" I believe that all of these were created by John Shook and myself in the fall of 2000, while we were driving back from a conference in Austin. I'm also certain that there were more. And if any readers of this blog are inspired to add you own to the list, please feel free. Anyway, here they are:

What do you get when you cross ...

...G.E. Moore with a producer of flash-in-the-pan pop music groups?

Here is a band. Here is another.

...An Aristotelian virtue ethicist with Diana Ross?

A philosopher who looks for the mean between the Supremes

...Leibniz with a dervish?

The best of all possible whirls

...Hegel with Albert Camus?

Thesis, antithesis, Sisyphus!

...Schopenhauer with John Stuart Mill?

The Principle of Futility

...Kant with a maker of meat pastries?

The Categorical Impenada

...Kant with Freud?

The anal-ytic/synthetic distinction

...Augustine with a fisherman?

The City of Cod

...Kant with a careless deep sea diver?

The Kingdom of Bends

...Descartes with an Olympic backstroke champion?

Cogito, ergo swim

Intellectual Archeology

This week my department has been moving into a new building. In a future post I want to say something about this move--specifically, about the building's controversial name and the failed efforts to change that name. But in this post I want to share the results of a bit of intellectual archeology.

My new office is smaller than my old one, and it doesn't have a closet. What this means, among other things, is that I have to go through those boxes of old papers and notebooks that have been sitting in my office closet for years. There is no place to shove them and forget about them, so I need to make some decisions about what I'm going to keep and what I'm going to discard.

This morning I started leafing through some old notebooks which were clearly from sometime in the 1990's. One of them looked as if it were nothing but my notes for an introductory logic course I was teaching--and I was about to toss it when I flipped to a page of scribbled thoughts.

I noticed several things as I read through the three notebook pages of unpolished ideas. First, I'd obviously been reading Simone Weil, probably Gravity and Grace (this was especially obvious with respect to the final scrawled paragraph). Second, some of the phrases were familiar--early formulations of ideas that I would later refine in different ways. Third, some of my thinking from back then is impenetrable even to me. Fourth, I've evolved alot in my thinking over the years. Fifth, some of the main themes in my thinking about religion and reason, themes which have found expression in my book and elsewhere, were first scribbled in logic notebook years ago.

So I thought I'd share the contents of those pages with readers of this blog. If you find the views expressed outrageous or absurd, feel free to take issue with the younger me. I may or may not jump to his defense, depending on whether I agree with him.

Although there's no dating in the notebook, changes in ink color or spacing indicates entries made on different days (although all but the final entry seems to be a development of a single of thought). To capture this, I have numbered each new entry consecutively. Other than that, the notebook entries are unedited. However, in a couple of places I've been unable to resist interjecting a comment. While the text from the notebook appears in italics, the occasional comments do not (and they are enclosed in parentheses). So here they are, in order of appearance:


Consider the claim that human reason is not enough, that we must have faith.

This is at once one of the most important and most dangerous claims ever uttered: important because, when correctly understood, it teaches us that the absolute is beyond our grasp, and that to reach the absolute we must abandon the search and, instead, wait attentively; dangerous because, when misunderstood, it deprives us of both faith and reason, and leaves us more hopeless and helpless than the staunchest atheist.

(Did I really believe that staunch atheists were hopeless and helpless, or did I just say this because it had a nice rhetorical ring to it? From what I can recall about my earlier self, I suspect the latter. Also, since my earlier self could not have expected my later self to betray his trust by publishing what was intended as a private activity, I suspect he felt more freedom to indulge rhetorical flourishes such as these, just for the fun of it.)


"Faith" is used in two senses. In one sense it is something that we do: believe without reason. In another sense it is something that happens to us when we permit it: when we empty ourselves enough to let the divine presence in; when we are seized, as it were, by God; when the light of divine truth illuminates the limits of our intellect and lifts us beyond those limits; when we are humble enough to let go and allow this to happen--which requires, of course, that we let go of words, forsaking our desire to neatly box experience.

Faith in the first sense deprives us of both reason and God. To believe without reason is to believe without human reason, but it is also be believe without divine reason. Faith in this first sense is either arbitrary--the deification of your will--or a submission to personal history--the deification of culture. It is what we mean by "idolatry."

(The ideas here find their way into my book--especially the idea that willful belief amounts to idolatry. See especially pp. 185-186.)


To believe that God exists ON FAITH is either dangerous or irrelevant, depending on the sense of "faith." To believe that God exists by an arbitrarty choice of will is to vaunt your own will in a way that makes obedience impossible--true faith involves permitting God's will to usurp your own; this so-called faith is therefore the opposite of true faith. Such affirmations of God are not welcomed by God.

If, by "faith," we mean a connection to God which happens when we let go of our egos, then it makes no sense to say that we believe God to exist ON FAITH. It is like saying we believe the food in our mouth to exist on faith. We chew our food and let it nourish us. We believe IN it. But believing THAT it IS has no relevance once it is in our mouths. Likewise, believing THAT God exists has no relevance once He has entered us. Unlike food, the advent of God makes human beliefs irrelevant.

(The last paragraph of this entry puzzles me. Did I really mean "unlike food"? And was I really convinced that belief is irrelevant when one is in the grip of God? Irrelevant for what purpose? I suspect one would need to make some distinctions here in order for this to be acceptable. If all I meant was that the experience of being in the grip of the divine, and what one does in light of the experience, is more important than what one believes about it--that is something I can probably endorse today.)


In the domain of beliefs, reason is our surest guide. To say that reason is not enough is to say that the most important truths are not only beyond reason, but beyond belief--they can be felt and known, but not propositionally, and not without divine intervention.

Divine revelation produces a species of knowledge that is not a species of belief.

(Here, I'm pretty sure I was deliberately trying to sound profound. If I were interested in clarity, I would have said that what divine revelation produces is an immediate experiential acquaintance rather than propositional knowledge--the distinction between knowing Fred and knowing things about Fred).


This is not to say that all divine truths are beyond reason, or beyond propositional expression. There are things that we can say about God. Some of what we say can be evaluated with reason. Some of what we say is metaphorical, and can be understood only in the light of faith. Some of what we know in faith cannot be said.


The act of creation is an act of withdrawal. Before creation, God was everything. In order to create, God must bring it about that there is something which He is not. To exist as part of creation is to exist at a distance from God. To preserve us in being is to perpetuate that distance. God creates out of love. God's distance from us is a sign of that love.

(This is pretty obviously my own restatement of ideas I took from Simone Weil.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What I Might Have Said

Last week I gave a luncheon talk for the interdenominational “Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff” at my university. I’d been invited to talk about my book, but it occurred to me that for a group such as this it might be more meaningful to talk about how the book fit into a broader personal, spiritual, and intellectual journey.

After all, this was bound to be a group of people who had in one way or another confronted questions about the intersections of the religious life and the life of the intellect. And my book, whatever else it may be, is a milestone in my own personal journey to answer questions raised by these intersections. And so I thought it might be valuable to talk about the personal journey that took me from a child of agnostic preacher’s kids to the author of a liberal religious critique of the new atheists.

It was not a prepared talk. Instead, I took the informal luncheon format as an opportunity to explore in conversation with others a question I wasn’t sure I knew all the answers to. At some point I might try to write up the lessons I gained from that exploration, but what I want to discuss here is something that came up at the very end of the luncheon, when at least half of those in attendance had already left. I want to talk about what I might have said had the conversation not been abruptly derailed.

The line of conversation we were pursuing at that time was started by a thoughtful question from the minister who strives to maintain and mediate the fellowship (no mean feat, I think). It was a sincere personal question about interfaith dialogue, about finding the balance between personal conviction and genuine openness towards and respect for other faiths. Having written about this issue in a recent blog post, I shared some what I’d said there.

My answer prompted one of the more theologically conservative persons in attendance to speak up (let’s call him Jim). Jim pointed out that in John 14:6, Jesus is purported to have said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” After quoting this verse, Jim went on in something like the following terms: “When I am having conversations with people of other faiths, I must remain true to this foundation. And this means I have to let them know, as hard as it is to say and to hear, that unless they accept Christ as their Lord and savior, they won’t be saved.”

This comment prompted me to launch into a very brief overview of some of my thinking about Christianity and universalism. I began by distinguishing between two interpretations of John 14:6: the interpretation which takes the passage to say that no one comes to the Father unless they adopt the right beliefs about Jesus and/or make the right choices with regard to Him, and the interpretation which has it that no one comes to the Father except on account of the work that Jesus does on sinners’ behalf. While the former interpretation entails that only Christians who explicitly accept Jesus as savior are saved, the latter interpretation does not imply this at all.

I then confessed to being a universalist, at which point Jim promptly said, “That’s not biblical.” At that point I briefly sketched out what I took to be the explicit universalism of Paul, in Romans and elsewhere. And then I offered a metaphor that might be of some help in reconciling Paul’s universalism with the scriptural idea that it is Jesus alone through whom salvation comes. What I said, roughly, was something along these lines:

“Imagine that there are a number of people drowning in a lake, and a lifeguard—call him Chris—dives in and, one by one, rescues them all. Not everyone knows or acknowledges that it was Chris who saved them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t save them. Their being saved doesn’t depend on these things. It certainly doesn’t depend on Chris leaving some to drown. If those who do recognize and acknowledge their savior have any advantage over those who don’t, it’s that they know whom to thank.”

There are serious limitations with this analogy as a basis for a comprehensive theology, but for the purposes that I was using it for—to show how it’s possible for salvation to come from one individual and yet to extend universally, even to those who know nothing about that individual—I thought it was pretty helpful. And it also expresses my Lutheran theological disposition that our salvation is rooted in something God does rather than in something we do. Our salvation is not on account of our works but on account of God’s work on our behalf—and believing the right things or explicitly “accepting Jesus as Lord and savior” clearly qualify as our works.

I want to take time to say something more about this “theology of grace.” In part I do so because it may help readers to understand my reaction to what happened next. But more significantly, I do so because what I have to say here is precisely what I might have said next, had the conversation not been derailed in the wake of a remark that led me to lose my composure.

One of the greatest fruits of a theology of grace is that it liberates us to think, to question, to doubt, to admit uncertainty, and to take challenges to our views seriously. If we believe that our salvation does not hinge on our getting it right, we become free to be humble, to admit our finitude, to admit our inability to get it right—in short, to be intellectually honest about the human condition. And as I see it, an absolutely crucial feature of the human condition is that the fundamental nature of reality is beyond our grasp. We can theorize and speculate in ways that are more or less in line with what reason and evidence reveal, but we cannot know.

Our enormous material universe might be catalogued, its structure and mechanisms and history described to the minutest detail, and we would still face the same fundamental questions: Is there more than this? Is this world of immediate sense experience, this world whose structures and patterns we can describe, just a surface appearance? Or is it just a small part of something far vaster that is beyond description? Or is it, instead, the whole story?

We cannot know. We can be moved by the voice in our heart that encounters a hopeful vision, the voice that says, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” We can treat its urgings as emerging out of the part of us that IS, rather than the part of us that experiences and knows—the self insofar as it is a part of reality, rather than the self that stands back from it in an attempt to understand reality. We can treat our deepest longings as if they are a homing beacon, and their YES as an instinct that immediately apprehends what the discursive intellect cannot grasp. Or we can be moved by the voice that says, “I’ll believe it when I see it”—knowing that this is something we can never, ever see.

We can be moved by longing or evidentialism, but we cannot know. And the theology of grace allows us to admit this. Paradoxically, if we are convinced of this theology, we are freed from the pathological need for certainty. And while such certainty may not be the root of all hostility and intractable conflict, it is one fundamental source of these things. When we can admit we do not know, we can come together and hear each other and be more fully open to each other’s humanness. And insofar as the theology of grace facilitates that, it bears pragmatic fruits that speak in its favor. We have pragmatic reason to live as if the theology of grace is true, as if our salvation doesn’t hinge on getting it right, because only then can we break free of the psychological forces that push us into trenches of false certainty.

All of this was lurking in the background of my thoughts as I laid out the metaphor of the lifeguard. And what Jim said next opened the door to elaborating on these ideas.

“But Christians,” he said, “have to choose their own lifeguard.”

I took him to mean that the lifeguard only swims out to rescue those who ask him for his help. I remembered a Lutheran pastor who strongly influenced me years ago, who tried to explain Lutheran theology by saying that, on the Lutheran view, if any of us have a right relationship with Christ it is because Christ has beaten down the walls around our hearts and seized hold of us from within. It is not by what we choose or believe that we become connected with the transcendent. That connection is forged because the transcendent loves us enough to reach through all our crud.

I'd found that message transformative in my own life. And so I said, “I disagree with that.”

And Jim replied, “Then you disagree with God.”

His facial expression as he said those words might, at a quick glance, have been viewed as smug. But I don’t think that’s right. Because I’ve felt that expression on my own face. It emerges when I’m containing something far more potent than smugness, something that’s surging up into my face in a tidal rush: The need to be right.

I’m no stranger to that need. In fact, I worry sometimes that it drives me more than it does most people. And that is one reason why I hold so fiercely to the theology of grace: as a ward against the more dangerous demons of my nature. (Again, I'm not blind to the paradox here).

But one of the forces that’s most likely to trigger my need to be right is precisely the kind of comment that Jim uttered in this exchange, in precisely the tone in which he uttered it. Like begets like. When he said, in essence, “If you disagree with me you disagree with God,” I felt the schoolyard impulse to reply with, “I know you are, but what am I?”

But just then, one of my friends from another department spat out his indignation in something along the following lines: “That’s just the kind of arrogance that fuels Dawkins and these other new atheists, giving their accusations against religion credibility!”

I sputtered something about these sorts of utterances being “anti-evangelical.” Then I went on to say that such a statement is a conversation-stopper. I said something along the following lines:

When you say to me, “If you disagree with me you disagree with God,” what I
think is this: “Here’s someone who isn’t open to genuine conversation, someone
who’s just in it to try to impose his views on me rather than offering reasons
and arguments and ideas that I can consider and learn from. This is certainly
NOT someone who will listen openly to my reasons and arguments and ideas—so why
should I bother to listen to what HE has to say.” That’s what goes through my
head. And so productive dialogue ends.

Openness begets openness. Self-righteousness begets self-righteousness. Entering an interfaith conversation with the assumption that one has the truth and that the point of the exchange is to make the other person accept it—well, that begets a similar response. Instead of a conversation, one has a battle of wills. One has polarized confrontations that are more about grand-standing than about sharing, more about impressing those who are already on your side than about building bridges across rifts of difference.

In fact, the trumpeting arrogance of Dawkins and the other new atheists doesn’t come out of nowhere, but is a response to those who end conversations about Darwinian evolution by saying, “This is not in line with my religious beliefs. As such, it conflicts with God’s truth.”

I said something along these lines, but I might have said it more eloquently had I not been caught up in the moment, allowing my emotional response to be dictated by Jim’s invocation of divine authority on his behalf.

And then the exchange ended. And the luncheon ended. And what I might have said about the theology of grace—how I am a better person when I live as if it is true; how it affords me the space to pursue my intellectual curiosity, to speculate in ways that draw from both reason and hope; how it frees me from the fear that arriving at the wrong beliefs will be disastrous (a fear that is at work in different ways among both religious believers and atheists)—none of that was spoken.

And, ironically, the reason it wasn’t spoken was this: in that moment when Jim declared that I disagreed with God, the theology of grace eluded me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


One thing I regret in relation to my book is that there was no “acknowledgments page” at the start. The effect of this is that some of those towards whom I am most indebted were not mentioned in the book. And so, I want to post my acknowledgments page here.

First, I would like to thank my wife, Tanya, who became something of an author’s widow during the months when I was most intensely engaged in writing, and who gamely took up the parenting slack on weekends so that I could go into the office to work. On game days when OSU football fans took over the university, including every available parking space within miles of the campus, Tanya would drive me within hailing distance of campus, our children in the back, so that I could hike through the throngs of fans to my office. And, when it was time for me to come home, she’d cruise up and down the major street just outside campus until I could make my way back through the orange revelry.

I would like to thank my department head, Doren Recker, for taking action to relieve me of my undergraduate advising duties so that I could devote my attention to writing. More broadly, I want to thank the members of my department for providing an atmosphere of intellectual encouragement and support.

I would like to thank my children for providing the emotional grounding that keeps me asking how my academic pursuits are relevant to the business of life. I would also like to thank my son for a particularly memorable exchange. One afternoon, while I was sitting at the kitchen table with the entire manuscript in front of me, proof reading, Evan sat down next to me and asked me what that HUGE pile of papers was (he was not quite five at the time).

“It’s the book I’m working on,” I said. And then, in a moment of pride: “One day soon, when you go to the bookstore, you might see Daddy’s book there.” My intent was to impress him, but he didn’t look impressed. Instead, he fingered one of the pages of the manuscript and asked, “Can I draw on these?”

Since then, of course, I’ve had some of the more extreme critics of my book all but say that its greatest value is as scrap paper. They might be pleased to know that my son agrees with them. Every writer should have an Evan around to jar them out of their pretensions of grandeur.

Finally, I would like to thank my intellectual mentors. I am, of course, indebted to my professors in college and graduate school who oversaw my early intellectual development, most notably Newton Garver who directed my dissertation on violence and Christian love, and who first introduced me to Simone Weil as well as to the essay on ideological violence by John Ladd which has so influenced my thinking over the years. I must also say that my understanding of science and its methods—which comes out in my book—was largely shaped during the semester Garver and I team-taught an epistemology course.

On a deeper and more abstract level, it is Garver who first introduced me to the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which was born out of the collaboration of Quakers and prison inmates, and which offers experiential nonviolence/conflict resolution/community-building workshops in prisons as well as in various community settings. I cannot begin to understand how my involvement with AVP has shaped my personal and intellectual life, but I have no doubt that where I have succeeded in avoiding stridency in my philosophical arguments, I have AVP to thank. Where I have succeeded in being fair to my intellectual opponents, I have the listening skills taught in AVP to thank. And the spiritual impulse that lies at the heart of my book—to resist the urge to insist that all reasonable people must ascribe to the same worldview, to seek an intellectual space in which divergent perspectives can co-exist without insisting that those who disagree are either idiots or moral monsters—this is a spiritual impulse that has been nurtured in me through years of facilitating conversations about the meaning of life in prisons, addiction recovery groups, church youth groups, and other settings.

I am also indebted to a faculty member from the philosophy department at Ithaca College whose name, unfortunately, I cannot recall (nor can I recall what he looks like). What I do recall is that when I went to Ithaca College for a job interview during my final year in graduate school (a one-year position that I didn’t get), this philosopher was giving me a walking tour of campus—and said something about being interested in religious hope. We proceeded to have a conversation about the concept of hope (he rejected the idea that it involved expectation, since we can hope for things that we don’t expect to happen), as well as about what role hope played in religious faith and religious life. I remember sitting with him on a grassy hillside and talking about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose thought at the time was a central focus of my research.

Beyond that, I don’t remember much about the conversation. What I do remember is coming out of it convinced (in a way I hadn’t been before) that hope was really central to understanding religion—a conviction that eventually evolved (through my engagement with other thinkers, most notably William James) both into my functional definition of God as that whose existence would fulfill the “ethico-religious hope” and into my pragmatic understanding of religious faith as the decision to live as if a hoped-for possibility is true.

But my most significant intellectual mentor is a friend I first met in graduate school, who has done more to shape the course of my intellectual life than any other individual. John Kronen was the other “God guy” among the graduate students in a very secular philosophy department. He was a few years ahead of me in the program and so defended his dissertation after my second year at SUNY Buffalo, but we continued to maintain a close friendship over the years, one characterized by intense and lively philosophical conversations which have often culminated in collaborative articles.

While my professors in graduate school introduced me to the most recognized figures in the history of philosophy, it was John who first introduced me to Schleiermacher and Hermann Lotze. It was John who first suggested that I read Plutarch’s essay, “On Superstition,” which he called “very wise.” I think that it was John who, more than a decade ago when I was putting together a course on ideological justifications for violence, suggested Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew as an ideal text to include in such a course. It was John who bought me Zaehner’s The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism and encouraged me to read it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if up to a third of my theological library is comprised of books that John bought for me as birthday or Christmas presents.

I’ve learned that if John says, “Read this,” I will find it worth reading. Unfortunately, being a very slow reader, I cannot keep up with the list of works he recommends. But his track record of guiding me towards works that have influenced and inspired me is so remarkable that his recommendations (and gifts) consistently end up higher in the queue than do others.

John is one of the few individuals who read the entire manuscript of Is God a Delusion? as it was being produced. And while he (good-naturedly) bemoans the fact that I did not change the book in light of his criticisms, the reason for this is clear: So much of who I am intellectually is already shaped by John’s influence that, where we disagree (on such matters as intelligent design, for example), the disagreement represents one of those places where years of arguments and reading recommendations have failed to convince me.

Every scholar should, I think, have a friend like that.