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Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time

Anthony Rudd
Anthony Rudd

This has been a busy year for Kierkegaard scholars. It’s the bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth, so there have been a number of important Kierkegaard conferences. The most interesting one by far, I believe, was the one held at Baylor University from October 31st through November 2nd. The conference, which was part of the ongoing series “Baylor Symposia on Faith and Culture,” was entitled “Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time.”

Lots of conferences purport to address the issue of the relevance of Kierkegaard to contemporary life, but few deliver on that promise. This one did. There were over 400 attendees for the three day event and the topics ranged from “American Religion,” and “Kierkegaard as a Profit to the Church Today,” to “Some Contributions of Kierkegaard to Medical and Psychiatric Practice.” As with so many conferences, there was an embarrassment of riches in the form of many concurrent sessions each with a theme so interesting that it was very difficult to choose from among them.

There’s no way I could summarize all the papers I heard, let alone all the papers presented at the conference, so I’m going to give only a few highlights and direct interested readers to the website for the conference for more complete information.

The highlights for me on the first day were the presentations by Jan and Steve Evans. Jan Evans is a professor of Spanish at Baylor who specializes in the work of Miguel de Unamuno. Unfortunately, I know very little about Unamuno. Fortunately, Evans’ paper gave me a little insight into the respects in which Unamuno was influenced by Kierkegaard. I’m not going to take up space here discussing that issue, however, because Evans has a new book out on that very topic, entitled Miguel de Unamuno’s Quest for Faith: A Kierkegaardian Understanding of Unamuno’s Struggle to Believe (Wipf & Stock, 2013) so if you are interested you should check it out. You can even get it in a Kindle edition!

C. Stephen Evans is one of the most important Kierkegaard scholars working today and an absolutely mesmerizing speaker. I knew his talk, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can know There Is a God Without Proofs,” would be good, but I was concerned that I might have difficulty following it since it was in the evening. I find it really challenging to listen to more than a couple of presentations in one day. I like to think that it’s because I become so mentally preoccupied with issues raised in those papers that it becomes hard for me to concentrate on new material, but it could well be that I just can’t process that much information in so short a time.

I needn’t have worried, though, that I would have difficulty following Evans’ paper. It was absolutely absorbing in terms of substance and was delivered in such an animated and apparently spontaneous manner that it was as if Steve were holding forth in one’s living room after a particularly pleasant meal. The time flew by.

I understand that there will be a volume of selected papers from this conference. This is going to be a must-buy for every Kierkegaard scholar, not simply because of the enormous variety of wonderful material it will contain, but also because the fact that Kierkegaard believed we could know there was a God is still not widely appreciated by Kierkegaard scholars and this is a serious obstacle to progress in the field. I’m going to return to this issue, in fact, in my second post on this conference where I will examine in some detail one of the papers delivered in a session on Saturday entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.”

The highlights for me on Friday were a panel discussion in the morning entitled “Kierkegaard as a Prophet to the Church Today,” and Anthony Rudd’s “Featured Presentation” in the afternoon entitled “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.”

The first session was a panel discussion of Kyle Roberts’ book Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Wipf & Stock, 2013) (also available in a Kindle edition). Roberts is an associate professor of systematic theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota and his book is, as one may have gathered from the title, about the significance of Kierkegaard for the contemporary religious phenomenon that is generally referred to as “emergent Christianity.” Roberts confesses in the preface to the book that he is “neither an emerging church leader nor a recognized emergent theologian.” He is deeply sympathetic he explains, however, to the movement and has gotten a great deal of exposure to it through observing the gatherings at an emergent church in Minneapolis known as Solomon’s Porch. The book, he explains, is his “attempt to bring Kierkegaard’s religious thought into dialogue with postmodern expressions of Christianity (i.e., the emergent, or emerging church).”

I was sorely tempted to attend the session on Kierkegaard’s contribution to medical and psychiatric practice because I am very interested in the philosophy of psychology and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, that session ran at the same time as Anthony Rudd’s presentation “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.” Anthony is a dear friend and Plato one of my favorite philosophers, so I couldn’t really pass on that session. I had read an early version of a paper Rudd had done on Kierkegaard and Plato and found it fascinating. I think Plato had a much greater influence on Kierkegaard’s thought than is generally appreciated. Rudd is beginning what I hope will be an avalanche of work on this topic and not only did I want to support my friend, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new direction in Kierkegaard scholarship.

Rudd’s presentation was outstanding and generated a very lively discussion afterward because a couple of people in the audience thought Rudd had given short shrift to the distinction Kierkegaard occasionally makes between Plato and Socrates. Since Rudd was a “featured speaker,” his presentation will very likely be part of the volume that will come out of this conference so readers will be able to judge for themselves whether they think this was a weakness in Rudd’s argument. I don’t think it was. I think Rudd’s position was not just convincing but really exciting in that it is certain to generate much more work on this hitherto neglected but clearly very important topic.

I will say more about the conference in a later post.

Publishing News!

Rudd's Self, Value, Narrative (cover)Anthony Rudd has a new book! Rudd, as many of you will know, is one of my favorite Kierkegaard scholars, not simply because he’s a lovely human being, but because his work is of uniformly high quality. His new book is Self, Value and Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach (Oxford, 2012). The description on Amazon reads:

Self, Value, and Narrative … defends a series of interrelated claims about the nature of the self. [Rudd] argues that the self is not simply a given entity, but a being that constitutes or shapes itself. But it can only do this non-arbitrarily if it has a sense of the good by which it can be guided as it chooses to endorse some of its desires or dispositions and repudiate others. This means that there is an … ethical or evaluative dimension to selfhood, and one which has an essentially teleological character. Such self-constitution takes place in narrative terms, through one’s telling–and, more importantly, living–one’s own story. …. Rudd develops these ideas in a way that is importantly different from others familiar in the literature. He takes his main inspiration from Kierkegaard’s account of the self, and argues (controversially) that this account belongs in the Platonic rather than the Aristotelian tradition …. Through close engagement with much contemporary philosophical work, Rudd presents a convincing case for an ancient and currently unfashionable view: that the polarities and tensions that are constitutive of selfhood can only be reconciled through an orientation of the self as a whole to an objective Good.

Rudd showed me a paper several years ago in which he was developing this idea of the Platonic roots of Kierkegaard’s concept of the self. If I remember correctly, he was scheduled to give that paper at a meeting of the Central Division of that APA and wanted some feedback on it. I thought then that it was excellent and am very pleased to see that the ideas he expressed in that paper have now been more fully developed and made available to the general public in this volume.

I’m less excited about the publisher. When I went to purchase the book on Amazon, I was shocked to discover that Amazon’s discounted price was $75 and that it was not yet available as an ebook. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the price. Both Oxford and Cambridge are notorious for pricing their books out of the range of everyone but the independently wealthy–and university libraries. I had suggested to Rudd, when he was shopping for a publisher, that he try Baylor. Baylor did a fantastic job with my book Ways of Knowing, and they priced it at a very reasonable $49.95 (hard cover). I actually made money off that book, more money, in fact, than I made off the translations I did for Oxford (which makes me wonder just what Oxford is doing with all the money they are making off authors).

More annoying is the fact that the book is not yet available as an ebook. What’s up with that Oxford? I buy almost exclusively ebooks these days. I’m an unabashed fan of them, despite the recent propaganda campaign against them. I’m going to buy Rudd’s book, of course, because I know it will be excellent. I don’t have to buy it immediately, however, because I won’t be able to get to it immediately, so I encourage everyone to go to the Amazon page for the book and click the “Tell the publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle.” Maybe if enough people do that, it will be out in a Kindle edition soon.

I have more good news on the publishing front. Thom Satterlee has sold the Danish rights to his book The Stages: A Novel. It’ll be translated and published by Rosenkilde & Bahnhof in time for SK’s b-day this May. Congrats Thom!

Hilarious History of Western Philosophy!

Anthony Kenny has an excellent review of three books on religion and “the new atheism” in the July 22 TLS. He devotes most of his attention, and praise, to Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Saint Augustine Press, 2010). Feser apparently thinks philosophy took a wrong turn in the Renaissance when it abandoned Aristotle (a view that has been increasing in popularity since Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue). Since one can’t assume that the average TLS reader is going to know enough about the history of philosophy to be able to follow Kenny’s commentary on Feser’s thesis, Kenny opens his review with an absolutely hilarious “master-narative” of the history of philosophy. The narrative, according to Kenny, goes something like this:

[P]hilosophy was started in the ancient world by Plato and Aristotle, who were not bad philosophers considering how long ago they lived. Once the Western world became Christian, however, philosophy went into hibernation for many centuries, and saw as its only task to write footnotes to Aristotle. Some of the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages were clever chaps, but they wasted their talents on logical quibbles and pettifogging distinctions. It was only when Aristotle’s metaphysics was thrown over in the Renaissance that philosophy got into its stride again, and renewed its connection with scientific inquiry. Descartes showed that the way to understand the material universe was to treat it as a conglomeration of purposeless material objects operating according to blind laws: there was no need for Aristotle’s final causes. While Descartes was a rationalist, a succession of philosophers writing in English, from Hobbes to Hume, showed that it was sensory experience, not reason, that was the basis of all our knowledge. Kant and his German Idealist followers introduced a degree of obfuscation into philosophy, from which Continental philosophy has never totally recovered. But in Britain and America in the twentieth century, philosophy re-emerged into the daylight with the logical empiricism of brilliant minds like A.J. Ayer.

Feser, Kenny explains “rightly rejects this story. …. It was the abandonment of Aristotelianism,” Kenny continues, paraphrasing Feser, “that threw up the pseudo-problems that still haunt us.” These problems include, according to Feser, the mind-body problem, the problem of induction, and the problem of personal identity. The book sounds promising, though Kenny concludes that the negative arguments are more successful than the positive one. It sounds as if it would be a good read for Kierkegaard scholars though because not only is the general defense of religion relevant to almost any serious work on Kierkegaard (independently of which side of the debate one comes down on), but also because Kierkegaard is a thoroughly teleological thinker as my friend Anthony Rudd argues in a really excellent forthcoming piece on Kierkegaard’s Platonic teleology, so any work that examines the advantages of a teleological interpretation of reality is worth a read!