Kierkegaard at the American Academy of Religion

IMG_2770There are sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at both the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion. There’s usually only one session devoted to Kierkegaard at the APA meeting, though, whereas there are nearly always three or even four sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at the AAR meeting. This is due to the tireless activity of the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group, one of the many groups affiliated with the AAR. This year, the KRC group sponsored three sessions: a book session on the late David Kangas’s Errant Affirmations (Bloomsbury, 2018), a session entitled “Where is God? Kierkegaard and the Denigration of Public Discourse, and another session entitled “Kierkegaard and Cinema.”

In addition to these three sessions, Søren Kierkegaard Society put on its annual banquet on the evening of the first official day of the conference. Joakim Garff was the banquet speaker. He gave a talk entitled “Expectation: Temporality and Rhetoric in Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses.” I heard from people who were able to make the banquet that the talk was good. Unfortunately, I was not able to make the banquet. I missed my flight. I was able to get a later flight at no extra charge, but the flight arrived too late for me to be able to make the banquet.

The SKS also sponsored a session entitled “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology: A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” Bob was a true giant of Kierkegaard scholarship. His editorship of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series from Mercer University Press, along with his other tireless scholarly activities earned him, in my mind anyway, the status of the unofficial father of contemporary Kierkegaard studies in English. The session, fittingly, was one of the best of have been to in many years. I was somewhat apprehensive about it because there were five speakers and a respondent scheduled for a session that was only two and a half hours long. That’s a lot of speakers! Fortunately, most of the presentations were short, so there was even a little time for discussion afterward.

The speakers were John Davenport, myself, C. Stephen Evans, George Pattison, and Lee Barrett, and the respondent was Christopher Nelson. Davenport’s paper was “The Crowd and Populism,” mine was “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics,” Evans’s was “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” Pattison’s was “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian Reflections on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Barrett’s was “Can Love Be Political?” All the papers were good and the discussion was even better. Sylvia Walsh Perkins was so pleased with the event that she immediately contacted Mercer and arranged for the papers to be published in a volume commemorating Bob. I was honored to have been part of the event and I look forward to the appearance of the volume!

The book exhibit is always one of my favorite parts of the AAR meeting. There was a period, when the AAR did not meet together with the Society of Biblical Literature, when the book exhibit was substantially diminished. The AAR and SBL are back together again, though, and the book exhibit is back to its old robust self!

I made an interesting discovery at the meeting. Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology is out in a paperback version! You can see it to the right of Steve Evans’s two excellent books in the photo above. That’s good news. One of the things I like about Baylor is that its books are reasonably priced. Sadly, I have not yet been able to justify spending what it would cost to purchase Kangas’s book. Even discounted, it is almost $80.

Scholarly books are expensive to produce, there’s no question about that, and Baylor’s production process is second to none. They do a truly beautiful job with their books, both in terms of the editing and in terms of the aesthetics. Yet despite this, Ways of Knowing was originally only around $50! Unfortunately, the new paperback version appears to be nearly as much. It is an important work, though, if I say so myself, and it’s good to see that it is still available. (I’ve seen paperback’s from other publishers go for more than $100. I’m not naming any names, but I suspect many readers will know the publishers I’m talking about)

It occurred to me that scholars who have not yet purchased the book might like to learn more about it before deciding whether they want to purchase it, so I have extracted a few pages from the penultimate version of the second chapter and attached it here. Check it out!

 

Kierkegaard as Liberal Theologian

munich-towers

I’m giving a paper at a conference on liberal theology at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich later this month. I’m a philosopher by training rather than a theologian, so I’ve been doing some reading in preparation for the conference. One of the books I’ve been reading is Michael J. Langford’s A Liberal Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Langford lists, in his introduction, what he asserts are the basic characteristics of liberal theology. The two most fundamental characteristics, according to Langford, are (a) “The desire to use rational methods, including those of the empirical sciences, as far as they can be taken,” (b) The confident “pursuit of truth” from the perspective of belief “in a God who is active in the world, and who is the source of all that is” (22-23).

From these two characteristics, Langford derives five more:

1.) The refusal to be overawed by tradition or authority when strong objections to a belief or a practice are raised.

2.) A dislike of any formal links between church and state.

3.) A general scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience.

4.) A tolerant attitude to those who disagree, including an appeal to reason rather than coercion.

5.) A stress on the importance of the individual that rejects the relevance of distinctions based on nationality, race, religion, social standing and gender, except when these things can be shown to be relevant for the issue being considered. Respect for the individual includes encouraging each person to develop their own rationality and their own conscience, rather than being reliant on authority.

Much has traditionally been made of Kierkegaard’s purported conservatism. It struck me, however, as I read through this list, that Kierkegaard’s thought had every single one of these characteristics. Given Kierkegaard’s reputation as an irrationalist, people who are only superficially acquainted with Kierkegaard may be surprised to learn that he had (a) “a desire to use rational methods.” In fact, Kierkegaard prided himself on the rigor of his thought (see, for example, Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks [hereafter: KJN] vol. 7, pp. 182-183), and most specialists know that Kierkegaard was a very rigorous and systematic thinker (see, for example, the preface to C. Stephen Evans’ Passionate Reason, as well as the first chapter of Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard in Routledge’s Arguments of the Philosophers series).

Another way Langford describes the second characteristic of liberal theology is that it involves “a conviction that [God] is to be found wherever the human mind can reach” (23). This one is a little trickier because Kierkegaard is adamant that God is never found directly in the world, but only indirectly, when the world is seen through the eyes of faith (see, for example Philosophical Crumbs, 114-116). If we return to Langford, however, we see that such faith is precisely the foundation of the liberal theologian’s pursuit of truth. If seeing God in the world is the end of the liberal theologian’s pursuit of truth, faith that God is to be found there is also his starting point. And that is precisely Kierkegaard’s position. One will never find God, according to Kierkegaard, through, for example, the simple contemplation of nature, but one can find God in nature if one sees nature through the eyes of faith, as his discourse entitled “What We Learn from the Lillies of the Field and From the Birds of the Air” (from Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits) makes clear.

Now to the more specific characteristics of liberal theology. Far from being “overawed by tradition or authority,” Kierkegaard is constantly critical of it (c). He criticizes Luther repeatedly (see, for example, KJN vol. 4, pp. 373-375; 410; 427, and The Moment and Late Writings, 39). He even goes so far as to criticize the apostles (see, for example KJN vol. 10, pp. 12, 18, 41, 107). He was vehemently opposed to “any formal links between church and state” (d) as is apparent in his observations that “a State Church is made possible only by deceptively conjuring forth the impression that everyone is Christian” (KJN vol. 9, pp. 331),[1] and “[e]very attempt to establish a Christian state and a Christian people is eo ipso unchristian” (Papir 493 1854; my translation).[2]

Kierkegaard’s “scepticism of claims that are not backed up by appeals to reason or experience” was the foundation of his antipathy for “pure thought” (e), and his definition of faith as “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness” (CUP [Swenson-Lowrie], 182) makes clear that faith could never be coerced (f).

Finally, everyone knows that Kierkegaard emphasized the importance of the individual. He may have been personally sexist, racist, and even antisemitic, at least toward the end of his life, but there is nothing in his works that would support the view that we are not all equal in the eyes of God, and equally capable, or incapable, of establishing the proper relation to God through relentless, passionate, conscientious self examination. (I added the qualification “incapable” because establishing the proper relation to God is something, according to Kierkegaard, with respect to which we all need God’s help.)

Kierkegaard was politically conservative not because he lacked sympathy for the common man, and not because he had any particular faith in the social and economic elite. If anything, he had even less faith in the latter than in the former. He believed that elites tended to “to base the state on a substratum of people whom [they] totally ignore[d], denying all kinship with them” (KJN vol. 6, p. 219), and that this was “unchristian and ungodly.”

Kierkegaard was politically conservative because he had an inherent distrust of collectives (a distrust which history appears to vindicate) and because the model of monarchy with which he was most familiar, as I argued earlier, was exceptionally benevolent.

There is no question that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. I hope it is clear now, however, that theologically, he is solidly in the liberal tradition.

 

[1]. I have altered the translation here because while the text of KJN is not technically incorrect (apart from the fact that “only” is in the wrong position), it is so awkward that it significantly misrepresents the character of the original.

[2]. I’m unable to give the  reference for this quotation because it is in volume 10 and that volume is not yet available in Drexel’s library. I have included a link, however, to the online version of the Danish text.

Report from the Pacific APA

I chaired a session on practical reasoning at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association last month. The session was great. The presenter, Ting Cho Lau, was a very sharp graduate student from Notre Dame. His paper was entitled “Tough Choices, Reasons, and Practical Reasoning,” and his argument was that none of the dominant theories of why “tough choices” are tough either adequately explains the phenomenon of toughness or holds out much promise of providing agents with guidance for making such choices.

I won’t go into Lau’s specific criticisms of each of the dominant theories. What will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars is that Lau argues none of those theories adequately acknowledges that tough choices, such as what career to choose, often involve the shaping of a person’s identity and so among the many considerations that must be looked at is what kind of person it is possible for one to become. Not everyone can, for example, become a great opera star. Even those who are excellent singers by most standards may have to accept at some point that their talents will likely limit them to more minor roles. That kind of self-examination is very difficult and that does indeed go a long way to explaining why at least some tough choices are so tough.

Lau’s paper was clearly presented and well argued. It was also ambitious, though, in that he proposed not simply to give a more adequate account of why tough choices were tough, but also to provide agents with guidance for making them less tough. It seems to me, however, that knowing that a choice is so “tough” because it involves figuring out just who exactly one is and who one is capable of becoming isn’t necessarily going to make the choice any less difficult. It seems entirely possible, in fact, that it might make the choice even more difficult.

The situation is even more complex, I would argue, than Lau presented it as being because the issue is not simply that of determining what kind of person one is capable of becoming, but also of determining what kind of person one wants to become. Usually, we are pulled in various directions with respect to that issue. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge that we may want to become someone (a famous opera singer, for example) that we simply don’t have the talent to become, it is even harder, Kierkegaard would argue, to determine who we really want to become. We want to become good people, people pleasing to God (or, if we are not religious, at least pleasing to our neighbors, or to those in our culture more generally), and yet, and yet, we are also drawn toward decisions that would make us into quite another sort of person.

There is, as Kant would say, a corruption in the subjective determining ground of our will. Or, as Kierkegaard would put it, we are “double-minded.” Arguably, that is the real reason why at least some choices are so “tough.” It isn’t all that difficult, generally, to decide on a career, or on whom to marry. Many people, in fact, would describe these choices as having been made for them, in a sense, by inclinations that were so strong they didn’t really seem like choices. Other sorts of choice, however, are not so easy. Deciding, for example, whether to stick up for a colleague who is being bullied and harassed when doing so might expose one to the same treatment––now that can be difficult!

The session was great, though, and Lau’s paper is a work-in-progress that even in light of the above criticism is better than many a paper I’ve seen published in peer-reviewed journals. The commentator, Susan Vineberg, from Wayne State University was also excellent, and the session as a whole was exceptionally well run. I’m not tooting my own horn there. I was only one of three chairs for three separate papers and actually the weakest link in that chain in that I mistakenly assumed the respondent had the same length of time to present her remarks as had the presenter. Each presenter got twenty minutes and each respondent got ten, so even though the entire session was three hours long, it went by in a stimulating flash.

My favorite session, however, was one of two sessions put on by The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. The topic of the session was love and “attachment.” Each of the three speakers was good. The highlight of the session for me, however, was the last speaker, Monique Wonderly of Princeton. Her paper was entitled “Love, Caring, and the Value of Attachment.” Wonderly argued, in terms such as I had used in the speech I gave at my father’s memorial service, that “[a]ttachment figures help to shape our senses of self, imbue us with self-confidence, and can serve as a source of emotional regulation and support even in their absence.”

I am really happy to have discovered The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. I knew about its existence before, of course, but for some reason I had assumed it was more about sex than it was about love, or that when it treated love that it was only sexual, or romantic love. I was wrong. The session was wonderful and would have been of enormous interest to Kierkegaard scholars.

There was one session on Kierkegaard. It was sort of a stealth session because Kierkegaard was not mentioned in the title of the session. The title was simply “Political Theology Group.” All the papers were on Kierkegaard, though. Unfortunately, the session was not well run. There were four speakers and a respondent for a two-hour session! It wasn’t clear how much time had been allotted to each speaker or whether any of them ran over that time. There was no time for questions, however, none. Hence there was no discussion whatever and there really should have been because some of the presenters appeared to be laboring under the erroneous view that Kierkegaard was generally contemptuous of the plight of the poor and the downtrodden and that there really wasn’t much in Kierkegaard that would provide a foundation for a positive political philosophy. I won’t rehash that tired argument or my response to it here. Go back and look at the earlier posts on this blog relating to Daphne Hampson’s book and Peter Gordon’s review of it for my comments on that view. Actually, one kind reader of this blog sent me a long list of quotations from Kierkegaard’s works that support his concern for the poor and downtrodden. I am going to use that list in a future post––with proper attribution, of course.

Just as an aside, I should alert readers to the fact that there is going to be a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November the theme of which will be “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology. A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” I know some of the speakers already and I can tell you that it promises to be a very good session indeed. Bob Perkins, about whom I will write more later, deserves nothing less. He was a true giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and he will be sorely missed.

There were lots of other great sessions at the Pacific APA meeting, including Onora O’Neill’s Berggruen Prize lecture that included comments from Andrew Chignell of Princeton and Eric Watkins of U.C. San Diego. Yes, that’s right, Andrew Chignell appears to have moved already from Penn to Princeton. And I was so happy and excited to have him here in Philly. That guy is really smart, and, as I learned from that session, a fantastic speaker.