Monday, October 25, 2010

Dipping the toe to the jacuzzi that is Philosophy

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Come on in, the water is fiiiiine.
Over the course of this year, which has consisted of the end of my second year of grad school and now the beginning of the third, my theological studies led me ever-closer to the discipline of philosophy. Philosophical writing has never been far from any of my post-secondary education - whether in literature or theology - but I've never taken a formal philosophy class.

For the past few months, I've been following the writing of James K.A. Smith, who is a philosopher by trade, teaching the discipline at Calvin College. He is a self-described "theological philosopher," which basically means that he does his work in the academy making no bones that the Christian faith (in)forms his craft. The reason I've been following Smith so closely has a lot to do with the fact that he's an amazing blogger. Some of his blog posts have been seeds for essays that eventually get published in book form. So he's a line-blurrer in that regard: I don't see any of the other scholars I'm paying attention to doing their work in this way (which by virtue of this blog is obviously a way I love to work). Further, Smith's public blogging does a great job of translating the highly technical "shop talk" of philosophy into something that makes sense to someone like me. He's a fantastic Christian thinker and writer who knows his various audiences well, and speaks to them each appropriately.

So read on after the break for some quick musings on my (mis)adventures with the discipline of philosophy and how James Smith has helped me inch along...

There have been two books that recently entered my thought-world, both of which engage the work of Canadian philosopher and practicing Roman Catholic, Charles Taylor, specifically his "social imaginaries" framework. As I'm getting ready to write a final paper for one of my classes, I thought it would be worthwhile to check out Taylor's work myself. The library here at Eastern Mennonite U. has a copy of his most recent (2007) work, A Secular Age, so I ran down the hill last night and grabbed it. Once I got home, I carried out my typical process with new books: 1) Outlining the entire book - chapters and major headings - in an electronic document, then 2) "Shelving" the book in my EndNote library for possible future citations in papers.

As I was carrying out Step 1, I was dumbfounded by the organization of the book. Instead of major headings within each chapter there were simply numbers separating sections! How am I supposed to quickly jump to topics with such an organizational scheme?! Then I recalled having once looked at Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, and seeing a similar organizing pattern (and was equally scared off by it). After scouring through the entire 700+ page book, I closed it up and put it by the door to quickly return to the library. Charles Taylor is waaaaaaaaay out of my league, so I'll stick to the summarizers.

Re-enter James Smith, with whose writing I keep having weird instances of synchronicity. While still scratching my head this morning over how crazy philosophy can look to the uninitiated, he comes out with this blog post on philosophy and/as/of literature. The scholar he's interacting with in this post is speaking of phenomena related to the philosophical enterprise, something that is alien to many, many people (including me)...but why that may be okay. It doesn't totally put my mind at ease, but it sure helped.

Why I'm still trying: Two examples
Now back to Taylor: I stumbled on this interview with him last night while head-scratching. In addition to the stuff that I didn't grasp and/or skimmed over, he made some observations about phenomena in the U.S. surrounding religion that resonate deeply with my thinking. Quick for-instance: the interviewers note a "civil war within the (U.S.) civil religion," which Taylor (and I) thinks is a great way to describe what's going on in things like the Tea Party movement.

And imagine my delight when I saw this short article on a U.K. news site by U.S. Christian ethicist, the eminent Stanley Hauerwas: How real is America's faith? All this intellectual stuff gets mixed up in the soup of how I'm looking at the world and interacting with it, primarily out of my Christian discipleship and as a ministering person in the church. Simply put: This stuff matters. Civil religion (manifesting as nationalism, militarism, etc.) and its influence on Christians matters.

Christian Early, who teaches philosophy here at EMU, recently told me that he thinks of philosophy as a "healing discipline" that can help one understand the world and what goes on in it. When I'm not scared off by the forms it takes inside the academy, I tend to agree with him. I've been enriched by the experience of philosophy coming alongside my theological studies and being a conversation partner with the Christian faith, thickly understood and practiced.

More relevant reading: Christianity and its others by Peter van der Veer at The Immanent Frame

[Photo by jokir via Flickr, under CC license.]

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