M.G. Piety

Posts Tagged ‘American Academy of Religion’

Report from the Pacific APA

In Conference news, Uncategorized on April 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm

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.

Advertisements

Joakim Garff on “Kierkegaard’s Christian Bildungsroman”

In Conference news, News from Copenhagen on January 11, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Garff at the 2011 AAR meeting in San Francisco

It’s rare that Danish scholars venture outside Denmark. So it was a treat to hear Joakim Garff deliver a paper at the 2011 AAR meeting in San Francisco last November. (I’m sorry about the quality of the photo. I didn’t think to bring my camera, so I had to take it with my iPod Touch). Garff is trained as a theologian but his métier is aesthetics and literary theory. There’s been a lot of interest among contemporary Kierkegaard scholars in Kierkegaard’s aesthetics and his relation to art and rightly so. Kierkegaard is a consummate story teller as well as a lover of music. He often disparages art, but he is himself a type of artist, so his relation to art and, in particular to literature as a type of art, is deeply ambivalent.  Garff’s paper, as the title of this post indicates, was an argument that Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity can be read as a Christian Bildungsroman.

The paper, Garff explains, presents “a reading of the third section of Practice in Christianity in order to visualize the sophisticated movements that Anti-Climacus performs between an aesthetic-rhetorical mimesis and a specific theological imitatio Christi.” It is Garff’s contention that Practice in Christianity can be read as “a refined and condensed Bildungsroman that constitutes a representation of Christian individuation: An aesthetic image (Billede) of the crucified savior, with which a child is dramatically confronted, is gradually transformed int a religious examplar (Forbillede).” Garff’s analysis, he asserts “testifies to the fact that the aesthetic dimension in Kierkegaard’s theology is a ‘theology of autopsy,’ which seeks to reduce or suspend, through an extensive use of rhetorical tools, the temporal distance between a modern reader and Jesus of Nazareth.”

I’ll confess that I’m uncertain precisely what he means by “theology of autopsy,” or perhaps I should say I’m uncertain why he’s chosen that expression, because the latter half of that sentence makes perfect sense. That is, I think Garff is correct in his claim that Kierkegaard uses his rhetorical skills as a means of creating a semblance of contemporaneity in his reader with the historical person of Jesus. Few scholars would dispute that, though I believe most would argue that establishing what Kierkegaard would consider genuine contemporaneity in the spiritual sense is ultimately beyond the scope of rhetoric no matter how skillfully employed.

The ambiguity of the relation between literary form and spiritual substance is one that runs throughout Kierkegaard’s entire authorship and which thus deserves to be treated in more detail. There are already some excellent works on the topic of Kierkegaard’s aesthetics, including Sylvia Walsh’s Living Poetically: Kierkegaard’s Existential Aesthetics (Penn State Press, 1994), but the topic is far from exhausted.

I would argue that the specific topic of the Bildungsroman in Kierkegaard’s works deserves fuller treatment. Repetition, for example, is clearly a Bildungsroman, and one could argue that the whole of the authorship, particularly in light of Kierkegaard’s own comments on it in The Point of View, could be read as an extended Bildungsroman.

Garff made a comment in passing that was so important it deserves to be repeated here. Someone asked him what he made of the pseudonymity of Practice in Christianity and he replied that he didn’t think it was particularly important. He said he thought scholars made too much of the issue of the pseudonymity of many of Kierkegaard’s works, that in some instances, at least, pseudonyms were last minute additions to works he’d originally planned to publish under his own name. I could not agree with Garff more an that point. Anyone who has spent any time reading Kierkegaard’s journals and papers, as well as the works he published under his own name, knows that the view contained in the pseudonymous works, more often than not, reflect Kierkegaard’s own views. I believe the pseudonyms were an aesthetic device, something to give a particular work a kind of symmetry, or closure, that the name of a real flesh and blood author affixed to them could not do.So there we are, back to aesthetics.

Garff mentioned that he had a new book coming out soon, but would not divulge the topic.

Conference Report

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on November 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

AAR Book Exhibit

The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is the single most important conference for Kierkegaard scholars. There are normally several sessions devoted exclusively to Kierkegaard, but this year there were an unprecedented five. The first was on Saturday  morning. It was co-sponsored by the Christian Systematic Theology Section and the Kierkegaard, Religion and Culture Group. The theme was Christology and Kierkegaard and the session was presided over by C. Stephen Evans of Baylor University. The second was later the same day. The theme of this second session was the work of Edward Mooney. This, for me, was a particularly interesting session because Mooney is as much a poet as a scholar and this was brought out well by the speakers. The third session was late in the afternoon on Saturday (yes, that’s right, there were three sessions devoted to Kierkegaard on Saturday). The theme of this session was esthetics and the speakers included Joakim Garff, the author of Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005) about which I’ve written.

I’m afraid I missed the session on Sunday morning that was devoted to Kierkegaard and Hermeneutics. I’d like to have gotten to that session, if only to see one of my favorite Kierkegaard scholars, Tim Polk of Hameline, who was the session chair. My own paper was scheduled for the same afternoon, however, as part of a session devoted to Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so I spent the morning making the final edits. I made an important discovery at this AAR. If you read your paper directly from your computer, you can keep making edits right up until that last minute!

My paper was well received, though there were few questions. My guess is that this was because it addressed two subjects with which most scholars are not heavily engaged: Kierkegaard’s epistemology and patristics. Mine was also the first paper and people kept streaming in as I was reading. This was distracting, I’m sure, to the people who were already seated and, of course, the people who came late would not have heard the entire paper (the upside of this was that there was standing room only at the beginning of the session).  I met several patristics scholars, including Nathan Jacobs of Trinity International University, who came up to me afterward and told me they had enjoyed the paper and that they felt that there was a very strong relation between Kierkegaard’s thought to that of the Church Fathers. My brief exposure to this area of research supports this view. I plan to do a lot more work on this issue in the future and am grateful for the contacts I made in San Francisco.

One of the highlights for the conference to me was the number of sessions devoted to sex. There were at least a dozen such sections, including a joint session of the Evangelical Theology Group and the Religion and Sexuality Group, the theme of which was “Contemporary Evangelical Sexualities.” This session included a paper that, to my mind, had the best title of any paper at the conference: Erin Default-Hunter’s “Porn Again: What Pornography Can Teach Christians about Good Sex.” I don’t want to give the impression that I’m obsessed with sex or anything. I just think its nice to have such a clear demonstration that religious conviction is not, as is so commonly believed, inversely proportional to a healthy interest in sex. Sex is a gift from God. So I say go for it, you randy religion scholars!


Kierkegaard and the Ante-Nicene Fathers on the Knowledge that Comes from Faith

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on November 13, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I actually started this blog at the suggestion of Baylor University Press. Baylor published my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (2010) and they suggested that a blog might help to promote the book. I fear I haven’t written much here, however, on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so I figured now was perhaps the time to say something about it. I don’t want simply to rehash what I’ve already said in the book, so I thought that instead, I’d give you a preview of the talk I’m scheduled to give at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Francisco next weekend. I’m going to speak, as the title of this post indicates, on Kierkegaard and the Ante-Nicene fathers on Christian epistemology.

I’m a philosopher by training, not a theologian, so I knew very little about the Ante-Nicene fathers before I picked up Hans Urs  von Balthasar’s English translation of Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies. I picked it up, actually, just for a little light reading. I’d become interested in early church history as a result of reading Bart Ehrman’s excellent Misquoting Jesus. Erhman’s written so many popular books on the early Christian church that you might be tempted to think he’s not really a serious scholar. Let me disabuse you of that notion. I had to make a trip over to the Advanced Judaic Studies Library recently in connection with the preparation of my upcoming talk and the librarian there, Joseph Gulka, put me on to Ehrman’s excellent The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.

I got quite a few excellent books on the Ante-Nicene Fathers from Penn’s library, and let me tell you, the similarities between Kierkegaard’s views on the nature of Christian knowledge and the views of figures such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria is really striking. I’m surprised I hadn’t read about these similarities earlier. I fear too many Kierkegaard scholars are either philosophers who know nothing at all about theology, or theologians whose backgrounds are exclusively in later periods. I won’t go into all the similarities here but will point out only one I intend to emphasize in my talk.

I explain in Ways of Knowing that Kierkegaard believes it’s possible to know the truth, or to recognize Christ as the truth. God, he observes, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae].”[1]

The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι], for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (45) (Forgive the absence of diacritical marks. I’m not a classicist, so I haven’t yet figured out how to do them on the computer).

Irenaeus is specifically concerned here to reject the claim of the gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (45).

Interesting, eh? It should be interesting, anyway, to anyone who has read my book. But enough on my book. I’d like to take this opportunity to promote someone else’s book. I found a particularly interesting book as I was doing the research for this paper. It’s called Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism (Oxford, 2006). I was so entranced with it that I went right to abebooks.com to see if I could get a copy. Unfortunately, the cheapest copy was $75. I then did a google search in the hope that I might find one for less than $75 and discovered that Amazon had a Kindle edition for $8.80! I LOVE Kindle! If you’re interested in Kierkegaard’s epistemology, then I recommend you check it out!


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, tran. M.G. Piety (Oxford, 2009), p. 126.

Newsflash– “Piety” is a Real Surname!

In Uncategorized on January 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

I’d like to clear up what may be a confusion in the minds of some of my readers. I got an email a few days ago, from someone who liked the blog, asking me if “Piety” was a pen name. Yes, that’s a natural question, I suppose, especially for a Kierkegaard scholar (I’m sure John Wisdom was always being asked if “Wisdom” was his real name). “I know that word,” people probably think, “and it’s not a name!” That, in any case, was the explanation offered by my friend David Leopold for why the American Academy of Religion spelled my name wrong. That seems plausible. Either that, or they simply didn’t know how to spell “piety” (which, if it were true, would confirm the suspicions of the folks over at the Society of Biblical Literature).

No, “Piety” is my real name. There have been Pietys in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary war. In fact, my ancestor, Thomas Piety, served under Gen. Arthur St. Clair (an ancestor of Jeff St. Clair, editor of the online journal Counterpunch) in the American Army when George Washington was president.

My father, Harold Piety, was briefly the religion editor at the East St. Louis Journal. He used to enjoy answering the phone: “Religion, Piety speaking.”

I changed my name, when I married the legal scholar Brian J. Foley, to “Marilyn Gaye Piety Foley,” so “Piety” is still my real name, or at least part of it. I plan to keep using it too. I think it’s a good name for a Kierkegaard scholar.

Keep checking back. I’ve got some great posts coming up, including one on hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard, another on my forthcoming book Fear and Dissembling, and, of course, more on Tudvad’s book and its reception in Denmark.