M.G. Piety

Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Kierkegaard and Traditionalism

In Conference news, Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on November 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm

As I write this scholars of religion are milling about the book exhibit at the annual meeting at the American Academy of Religion in Chicago. The AAR meeting is one of my favorite academic conferences. There’s something for everyone there. From Wiccans to the Eastern Orthodox. I decided not to attend this year’s meeting, however, because I’m not on the program and that means I’d have to foot the bill myself. There are always a multitude of interesting papers, more than I would ever be able to get to even if none of them ran concurrently. I think what I miss most of all though is the book exhibit.

The book exhibit is wonderful. Every major academic and scholarly publisher is represented, including many foreign and esoteric presses. I’ve taken, in recent years, to carrying my Kindle with me through the rows of exhibitors. If I see a book I like, I quickly check to see if it is available on Kindle. Not only are Kindle versions often cheaper than the regular or hardcover editions (even with the substantial conference discount), but they do not add to the bulk of the luggage I have to tote back home.

Some books though, are simply not the same on a Kindle, or other electronic reading device because they’re not just text, but aesthetic objects. Such a book is The Christian Spirit from World Wisdom publishers. It’s sort of a modern version of an illuminated manuscript. No one has more (both in quantity and in quality) beautiful books than World Wisdom publishers. And no press has a more congenial staff. The year I bought The Christian Spirit I struck up a conversation with the people who were staffing the World Wisdom booth and the longer I stood there and talked, the more books they gave me. Yes, they gave me books. I can’t remember how many books I bought, somewhere around a half a dozen, I think, but they gave me at least that many for free. The conversation would turn in the direction of a subject covered in a book I had not bought, and no sooner than I would shake my head in disappointment that I really could not afford to buy yet another book, would I find it thrust into my hands for free if I would simply promise to read it.

I love the people at World Wisdom. When I arrived home and began to peruse some of my new treasures, I kept coming upon the terms “traditionalism,” and “perennialism.” The two terms are used more or less interchangeably to refer to the same movement. The movement was founded by René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. It’s a religious, or spiritual, movement that is at once pluralistic and conservative. Traditionalists believe that all religions have their origin in the same transcendent source–God, but that each must be respected for its own inherent integrity. It has unfortunately been associated with rightwing movements in Europe, which is probably part of the reason it is not better known in the U.S. It’s far from clear, however, that the core beliefs and values of traditionalism cohere with such movements.

What is clear, however, is that traditionalism is in at least some vague sense politically conservative. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the leading proponents of contemporary traditionalism quotes Schuon as asserting that the worst king is better than the best president. That remark gave me pause, not simply because one doesn’t expect to hear such an assertion from a contemporary Western scholar, but because it sounded so remarkably like Kierkegaard.

“A mediocre ruler,” asserts Kierkegaard, “is a much better constitution than the abstraction of 100,000 growling non-human beings” (“En maadelig Regent er en | meget bedre Forfatning end dette Abstractum, 100,000 brummende U-Msker.”  [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]). “Every movement that really wants to be progressive,” he asserts, “must have its origin in one thing–it must be clear that God is involved, that the whole thing really issues from him” (Enhver Bevægelse, der virkelig skal være et Fremskridt, maa udgaae fra Een – at det kan være tydeligt, at Gud er med i Spillet, saa det Hele egl. udgaaer fra ham [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]).

“Nasr had cited Kierkegaard, at the beginning of a talk he gave at a conference entitled “Tradition in the Modern World, as one of the bad guys, one of the modernist thinkers (which means “bad guy” to traditionalists).

It’s not surprising Nasr would put Kierkegaard in the class of modernist thinkers. Most people who don’t know much about Kierkegaard probably think about him that way. Even Alasdair MacIntyre presents Kierkegaard that way in his otherwise excellent book After Virtue. Most serious Kierkegaard scholars know, however, that such a view of Kierkegaard is mistaken (cf., e.g., Kierkegaard After MacIntyre). Kierkegaard’s political conservatism is, in fact, the source of a great deal of embarrassment among Kierkegaard scholars who think of themselves as politically progressive.

It’s time such scholars (and I place myself among them) acknowledged, however, that despite what we like to see as the potential of Kierkegaard’s thought to contribute to a progressive political ideology, it is unlikely that Kierkegaard would have approved of such a project himself. No “progress” is possible for Kierkegaard without God and fitting God into any organized movement, political or otherwise, is a project that Kierkegaard all too often speaks as if he believes is doomed to failure.

A monarch is a better regent, for Kierkegaard, than a mob because a monarch can, as an individual, have a personal relation to God, while a mob cannot. It’s not clear, however, whether all collectives can be fairly characterized, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, as “mobs.” Despite his bitter disappointment with “Christendom,” he seems to hold out some hope that there could be such a thing as a community of believers.

What would such a community look like? Is it something the traditionalists would recognize? Is that what they also are trying to effect in the modern world? The traditionalists’ rejection of modern secularism and their call to return to an explicit acknowledgment of what they view as man’s spiritual essence certainly coheres with the substance of Kierkegaard’s thought. It ought to be attractive as well to progressives in its pluralism. There is, I would argue, the potential for a great deal of fruitful scholarship on the relation between Kierkegaard’s political views and the contemporary traditionalist movement.

C. Stephen Evans wins C.S. Lewis Prize!

In Kierkegaard and Psychology, Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on November 5, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Kierkegaard scholar C. Stephen Evans has been awarded the C.S. Lewis Book Prize for his new book for Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). The prize, made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is awarded by the St. Thomas University Philosophy of Religion Project.

The C.S. Lewis Book Prize,” to quote the St. Thomas U. Department of Philosophy web page, “recognizes the best recent book in the philosophy of religion or philosophical theology written for a general audience.”

C. Stephen Evans, for those few of you who do not know, is one of the finest Kierkegaard scholars working today.  Evans, whose Ph.D. is from Yale, is currently University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University and is a past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers and of the Kierkegaard Society of North America.

Evans’ publications extend well beyond the confines of Kierkegaard scholarship. He’s published numerous books and articles on the philosophy of religion and on Kierkegaard and every single one of them is excellent. Among my favorites (though I’ll confess I haven’t read them all) are: Søren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology (Zondervan, 1990), Wisdom and Humanness in Psychology (Baker Books, 1989) and Preserving the Person: A Look at the Human Sciences (InterVarsity Press, 1977; Baker Reprint, 1982). His two books on Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs (or “Fragments” as it was known at the time) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript are far and away the best studies of these works. I’ll not give you the bibliographical info on those books because I want you to go to Evans’ page on the Baylor website to check out his entire bibliography. Anything that is out of print you can probably find on abebooks.com.

One would think that someone so prolific as Evans would have to spend all his time in his study. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every time I write him he replies from some remote corner of the globe where he’s been invited to give a lecture. Far from being a recluse, Evans and his beautiful wife Jan E. Evans, a professor of Spanish (also at Baylor) and scholar of both Unamuno and Kierkegaard, are bons vivants. Fortunate are their dinner companions at the various conferences they attend! (Actually, I’ve long suspected that Evans has an identical twin brother and that one of them is shut away cranking out those books and articles while the other trots the globe giving lectures and learning about the local wines and cheeses.)

No one is more deserving of the C.S. Lewis Prize than C. Stephen Evans. He’s and outstanding scholar and one of the finest human beings I have ever met!

And oh yeah, his new book, God and Moral Obligation, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Congratulations Steve!