Saturday, September 26, 2009

What Freedom? Whose Rights?

Oliver Sacks NYRB piece, "The Lost Virtues of the Asylum" (which will appear as the Introduction to Christopher Payne's photographic essay, Asylum: The Closed World of State Mental Hospitals) concretizes contemporary issues in political theology, particularly concerning the shape and effects of rights-talk. Without romanticizing madness or the asylum, Sacks nonetheless reminds us of the "sanctuary" that was provided by them. Originating in, and extensions of, cloistered life, work was a central aspect of the asylum--until the so-called defense of their "rights" and "autonomy" ended this so-called exploitation, turning these sanctuaries into palaces of passivity and atrophy. As he summarizes, recounting his own work in these institutions during this transitional phase of alleged "improvement":

Sadly and ironically, soon after I arrived in the 1960s, work opportunities for patients virtually disappeared, under the guise of protecting their rights. It was considered that having patients work in the kitchen or laundry or garden, or in the sheltered workshops, constituted "exploitation." This outlawing of work--based on legalistic notions of patients' rights and not their real needs--deprived many pateints of an important form of therapy, something that could give them incentives and identities of an economic and social sort. Work could "normalize" and create community, could take patients out of their solipsistic inner worlds, and the effects of stopping it were demoralizing in the extreme. For many patients who had previously enjoyed work and activity, there was now little left but sitting, zombielike, in front of the now-never-turned-off TV.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Radio Interview on "Desiring the Kingdom"

KTIS radio, out of Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN, recently interviewed me about my new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I hope it's an accessible conversation that helps folks get a sense of the argument and analysis in the book. You can listen to the interview online here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Thinking in Tongues" is Finished!

Well, after some (admittedly long) delays, I've just sent off the completed manuscript for my next book, Thinking in Tongues: Outline of a Pentecostal Philosophy. This will be one of the first volumes in a new series, "Pentecostal Manifestos," published by Eerdmans. (Concurrently appearing will be a monograph by Frank Macchia on justification. I think both are slated for summer 2010.)

As I note in the Acknowledgements,

When I once tried to explain this book to a friend who was not a Christian, I realized it sounded like the plot of a David Lodge farce. Indeed the very idea of “a pentecostal philosopher” has the quirky, whimsical makings of a Wes Anderson film or a Dave Eggers story (you know the sort of plot: “When a one-armed Jewish fashion designer is put in charge of a hog production plant in Pender, Nebraska…”). It’s easy enough to imagine a wizened Bill Murray or naïve Jason Schwartzmann in the lead role.

But I hope the book makes the notion of a pentecostal philosophy--or at least pentecostal contributions to Christian philosophy--a plausible, viable, constructive project. In many ways, this book is working in the wake of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, who carved out the space for distinctly Christian philosophy. I'm pressing that argument one step further, also trying to further the rapprochement between the Reformed anc charismatic traditions.

Here's a snippet from the Table of Contents that provides a bit of a glimpse into the book:

What Hath Athens to do with Azusa Street?

Chapter 1
Thinking in Tongues: Advice to Pentecostal Philosophers

Chapter 2
God’s Surprise: Elements of a Pentecostal Worldview

Chapter 3
Storied Experience: A Pentecostal Epistemology

Chapter 4
Shattering Paradigms, Opening the World: Science, Spirit, and a Pentecostal Ontology

Chapter 5
From Beliefs to Altar Calls: A Pentecostal Critique of Philosophy of Religion

Chapter 6
At the Limits of Speech: A Pentecostal Contribution to Philosophy of Language

Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy

I'm lobbying the publisher to include the image at right as the cover image. This is a Rubens, "Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove," that hangs in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. When we lived in Cambridge I used to take my kids there with sketchbooks for a quiet afternoon, so the image has some nostalgic significance for me. But in addition to the dove, the image also represents a persistent theme in the book--a resonance between a pentecostal philosophy and developments in feminist philosophy.

For now, I'm glad to have dispatched this and sending off into the machinations of editorial and production. I'll look forward to not seeing it for a while.

Next up: Letters to a Young Calvinist.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Gopnik on Ignatieff

"The Return of the Native," Adam Gopnik's report on Michael Ignatieff is, for me, a kind of literary perfect storm in which a swirl of my own interests coalesce: a cultural critic like Gopnik (an old favorite), talking about a Canadian political philosopher (who has risen to leadership of the Liberal Party in Canada) who spent years abroad, all ending in a closing scene at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, our hometown of sorts. Of course, such a conflation also gives rise to all sorts of narcissistic longing ("Why couldn't I be writing this article?") and guilt-ridden introspection ("Should I be returning to my home and native land?").

The tale is a boilerplate classic: the return of the philosopher-king, from the abstractions of reflection and purity of philosophy, to the darkness of the political cave and the dirtiness of pragmatic compromise. But, despite my distaste for Ignatieff's stance on war, I found myself intrigued by his work and want to read his biography of Isaiah Berlin.

It also got me thinking about the possibility that we might be able to distill a uniquely Canadian contribution to political philosophy, or at least a uniquely Canadian sensibility, which Gopnik also finds in Charles Taylor. Gopnik (himself a Canadian ex-pat) sees this as a certain communitarianism:

[T]he belief that the right of the community can trump the rights of the individual--and that this is not incompatible with liberalism but exactly what humanizes it--really is a distinctly Canadian intuition. It is arged in different ways, and with different emphasis, by the influential McGill philosopher Charles Taylor--who, as an N.D.P. candidate in the 1965 elections, was defeated by the newcomer Trudeau in his first run for Parliament [never knew that!]--and by the essayist John Ralston Saul and the Queens University philosopher Will Kymlicka.

Food for thought. It's got me dreaming up an "interim" course on Canadian political philosophy, perhaps in Ottawa or Montreal (in January?!), focused on Trudeau, Taylor, and Ignatieff. But that's just in the dream stage right now.

But the article also showcases Gopnik's prose, and seemed to bring out a hint of nostalgia as he recounted their travel to Stratford, a nostalgia that is, I confess, contagious:

We drove through the beautiful and prosperous South Ontario farm country, with Suzssanna [Ignatieff's wife] riding shotgun, and the Canadian lawyer and literary agent Michael Levine behind the wheel. Though it was a lovely summer evening, some small residual breath of the fugue state that makes small boys lose their gloves for good--the sense of scale, of endlessness that is part of Canada--seemed to infuse the scene. Canada is a big country.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Universities and the Pursuit of Doubt

Drew Gilpin Faust's essay, "The University's Crisis of Purpose" is worth a read. While, in typical R-1 fashion, she seems to forget that universities are also about educating people, and not just the advancement of research, she rightly "deplores the growing dominance of economic justifications for universities." There are, she emphasizes, a whole host of social goods that the university serves. Most intriguing, I thought, was this suggestion:

Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to a polyphony of voices. But at this moment in our history, universities might well ask if they have in fact done enough to raise the deep and unsettling questions necessary to any society.

As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?
The university as producer of doubt (note the "also" in that first sentence), doubt for the common good.

I wonder if we could imagine Christian universities having the same role for the church's good--the Christian college as a space where, in psalm-like lament and questioning, we articulate those nagging late-night and early-dawn questions, those Abrahamic protests, those faith-full questions that can only arise for disciples ("How long, O Lord?"). Have Christian universities produced enough doubt? Have we sufficiently called into question our unquestioned assumptions--such as our automatic confidence that what's "conservative" must be right and good? Have Christian universities sufficiently resisted and questioned North American Christianity's complicity with economic greed, nationalist fervor, and possessive individualism? And in failing to do so, have we failed to serve the body, failed to love the church?

Might the production of doubt be the path to a more radical faith?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Summer Reading at Immanent Frame

The folks at the Immanent Frame have been hosting a series of posts on "Summer Reading," asking a range of scholars from the social sciences and humanities to look back on the their reading from the season that's passing, and to look ahead to what's in store for the fall. It's a wonderfully diverse array of interests and books. My contribution is included in Part III, but also check out Parts I and II.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Canadian Letters: Jameson on Margaret Atwood

I was only three lines into Frederic Jameson's review of Margaret Atwood's new novel, The Year of the Flood, when I clicked over and ordered the book. Sounds fantastic: Orwellian, McCarthy-ish dystopia suffused with "religion"--conceived in a way that stretches our categories (as I've been trying to do in recent work on methodological assumptions in sociology of religion). And the religion in question, Jameson notes, is "Americanism" (a religion on which I've commented elsewhere). Atwood is poised to see this, Jameson claims, because she writes from that forgotten outpost of English letters, Canada:

Yet there is a category into which she squarely fits and without which she cannot fully be understood, a category of which at least 300 million English-speakers generally need to be reminded: she is a Canadian, and no little of her imaginative power comes from her privileged position above the border of the lower 48. The Fall is not properly grasped unless it is understood to be a fall into Americanism, as the magnificent rant from Surfacing reminds us:

"It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, my head said, they’re still Americans, they’re what’s in store for us, what we are turning into. They spread themselves like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells and the cells change from inside and the ones that have the disease can’t tell the difference. Like the Late Show sci-fi movies, creatures from outer space, body snatchers injecting themselves into you, dispossessing your brain, their eyes blank eggshells behind the dark glasses. If you look like them and talk like them and think like them then you are them."

When the narrator was little, the idea of evil was Hitler; but in the world of grown-up violence and Nature, a more sickening metaphysics begins to develop: ‘The trouble some people have being German, I thought, I have being human . . . then I realised it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both.’ It is a disease you can observe: ‘Second hand American was spreading over him in patches, like mange or lichen. He was infested, garbled, and I couldn’t help him: it would take such time to heal, unearth him, scrape down to where he was true.’ But ‘American’ is also technology, mechanisation, mass production: ‘The machine is gradual, it takes a little of you at a time, it leaves the shell. It was all right as long as they stuck to dead things, the dead can defend themselves, to be half dead is worse. They did it to each other also, without knowing.’

This then is the world of Atwood’s dystopia, for which, in this global near future, the term American is no longer necessary. Its colours have a loathsome pastel quality, like drugstores; its bunny suits and fluffy fabrics reflect the bad taste of infantile mass production; the bloody physical violence is that of cartoons rather than Hitler. If there is aesthetic pleasure here, it is that of a syrupy nausea that repeats on you; so that the end of the world has some of the cleansing, bracing effect of sand and waste landscape, of the seashore.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Philosophy: Harrowing Tales from "the Discipline"

Lou Marinoff provides a compelling peek inside the process a philosophy department goes through when doing a hire. (For example, while a position at City College CUNY might be a particularly coveted position, it's still jarring to read that they received 637 applications for 1 job.) This should be sobering reading for any young scholar contemplating graduate study in philosophy. It's also quite "convicting" reading for current philosophy professors since it seems that the search committee (and the institution) worked with exemplary virtue. But despite this, Marinoff laments that "[a]lthough we were privileged to obtain two hires, I feel a deep and abiding sorrow that so many dozens – indeed, hundreds – of talented and promising young philosophers will not be hired by anyone."

But I especially appreciated some of his reflections in the conclusion of the article. There he writes:

While philosophy is an excellent component of preparation for a variety of non-philosophical careers – from law to medicine, from journalism to international affairs – philosophy also has intrinsic as well as instrumental values that are, at present, grossly underutilized by our society and unrecognized by far too many philosophy departments themselves.

Many of our finest young minds are being educated by departments and institutions whose myopic “vision” of philosophy limits young philosophers to becoming permanently institutionalized in the academy . They are insufficiently versed in the myriad ways in which philosophy can be usefully applied outside the groves of academe.
I can only add my "Amen!" What is a particular travesty, I think, is when undergraduate philosophy programs get sucked into the same narrow professionalization of philosophy and fail to help students imagine a way of life other than that as a tenured professor. We do so not only in our professional advising but also when we teach undergraduate philosophy as prepatory seminars for studying epistemology and metaphysics at Rutgers. Such a limited imagination is nothing short of unjust given what Marinoff recounts at the beginning of the article--that only the tiniest minority of philosophers will ever land that sort of gig. But on top of that, we are neglecting the revolutionary potential of philosophy to equip a generation of activists who are not just sitting around interpreting the world but trying to change it.

For quite a different vision of philosophy as activist engagement rather than cerebral speculation and puzzle-solving, listen to Eugene Rivers' lecture presented to the January Series in 2004: "On Christian Philosophy and Politics in an Age of Terror."

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Decadence, Aestheticism, and Grace: A Theology & Literature Course at Regent College

While summer 2010 seems a long ways off, I've already been thinking ahead as I've been working on the syllabus for a course I'll be teaching at Regent College in Vancouver. I jumped at the opportunity because this will provide a chance to indulge my interests at the intersection of theology and literature. The course will be entitled Decadence, Aestheticism and Grace: Christian Theology and fin de siècle Literature.

Here's a brief description from the draft of the syllabus:

While Oscar Wilde was on his honeymoon in Paris, he discovered A Rebours (Against Nature), a scandalous novel by the French “decadent” writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. This novel—detrimental to the imagination of Wilde—became the “poisonous” book of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. And yet, the book had a strange ambiguity. As Wilde narrates, “One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner.” The goal of this course is to explore that ambiguity. The decadence and aestheticism of literature at the end of the 19th century seem to be scandalous antitheses of the Christian Gospel. But we will explore how these movements actually share much in common with orthodox Christianity. Thus these works are a kind of “back-handed” witness to the richness of God's creation, the need for redemption, and the enchantment of the world.

We'll be reading Huysmans' Against Nature and Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray alongside selections from Augustine's De doctrina christiana, Jean-Luc Marion's God Without Being, and Conor Cunningham's Genealogy of Nihilism. (I'm already hatching a sequel course that would tackle Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, and either Julian Barnes or Nicholson Baker.)

This will be part of Regent College's rich summer programming, which functions as an intellectual retreat in one of Canada's most beautiful locales. If you're interested, watch Regent's Summer Term page for updates.