Conundrums: on Being a Christian and a Philosopher

Image for post
Image for post
The Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City, NY. Photo by author

A few years ago, I came out as a trans woman to a friend. I also casually mentioned that I was attending an Episcopal church and had found my way back to the Christian community after a long sojourn in the thick underbrush of agnosticism. She remarked that she found it easier to believe that I was transitioning to my perceived gender than that I was Christian. Her remark was funny but telling.

1

I have long been “out” as someone with a near-Faustian obsession with the discipline of Philosophy, both Eastern and Western, but primarily in the canonical works that stretch from Plato through Heidegger and Wittgenstein. My friend’s muted surprise was, I think, a function of her knowing my intellectual love. Philosophers, at least in the academy, tend not to be believers in God, and many are thought to be even more hostile to organized religion. Over 70% of philosophy professors, in universities and colleges in North America, Europe, and Australia claim to be atheists. Many of these are stalwart scientific materialists cut from the same bolt of cloth as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, the philosophical pair of the New Atheist “Four Horsemen.” But many are not. One would be hard put to find anything other than atheism to link together Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jürgen Habermas with Bertrand Russell, David Lewis, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Dennett, and Harris. Atheism is a trans-continental — and trans-analytic — characteristic of most academic philosophers.

I can see why atheism is prevalent in academic philosophy, even though I am not an atheist. The God about whom philosophical atheists are usually skeptical is a God I cannot recognize, a God that embodies not the deep mystery at the center of things, but the causal explanation to end all causal explanations, and on top of that a cosmic Judge Dredd dealing in fear and punishment. God is indistinguishable from a very powerful being; God is not, as he is understood in Classical Monotheism, esse subsistens, being itself. The god rejected by many atheists is more like Zeus, Baal, or Ra, albeit with a Christo-Judaic-Islamic ancestry, and who is as a rule than the aforementioned are. But this isn’t God as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, or Karl Barth took God to be, a God that evades all our attempts at conceptualization and domestication.

Unfortunately, this understanding of the God most atheists reject — God-as-top-of-the-cosmic-heap, God-as-powerful-creature — is also common, if not prevalent, among the religious, and in the USA, especially among the Religious Right, which is comprised mostly of Evangelical Protestants with a sprinkling of conservative Catholics.

One — among many — problems with today’s Religious Right is its hostility to anything like a coherent theological tradition — theology as an extended historical conversation that changes and develops rationally throughout time. Theological traditions constitute an extended argument about what God is and can be expected to run on indefinitely while they refine themselves rationally, and charitably, affirming the good faith of one’s theological conversation partners. It is an attempt at fides quaerens intellectum, in the words of St. Anselm: of faith seeking understanding. And in so doing, it marries philosophical methods and theories to the task of theological inquiry. Faith without open inquiry is weightless.

But for the Religious Right, theology is instead a matter of combat apologetics: defending the faith by pinpoint arguments, often ad hominem, against the moral and intellectual depravity of philosophical doubters, extending at times to the discipline itself. (It is no accident that Jerry Falwell Jr. dissolved the Philosophy Department at Liberty University in the spring of 2019.) If you view your faith as an axiomatic system, whose foundations rest on a view of scripture that is not only literalistic but “self-interpreting” (as one fundamentalist former student put it to me; it struck me then as now as an odd, possibly incoherent idea), the kind of Socratic questioning that lies at the heart of philosophic practice can only steer one away from the True and the Good.

In contrast, philosophers of almost any stripe view Socratic aporiae, puzzlements about the True and the Good, and asking questions about them, as the only honest and reliable way to approach the True and the Good. So, to the philosopher, the dogmatic fundamentalism of the Religious Right not only hampers them from the task of understanding and knowing how things are: it makes it impossible, by making open inquiry unnecessary. Combat apologetics is not philosophical. It is at antipodes to Peirce’s maxim “Do not block the path of inquiry.” It is a war of words: one that gives no quarter.

So philosophers, as a rule, are as uncomfortable with religion as the religious, not universally but often enough, are uncomfortable with philosophy. But neither side to this dispute need be rattled by their counterpart. Theists need to drop the idea that atheism is not just a position with which they have serious disagreements, but that it is a sign of intellectual or moral depravity. Philosophical atheists need to own up to the fact that there have been plenty of top flight philosophers who were and are theists without compromising their disciplinary vocation (e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Hilary Putnam, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion), and plenty of theists who actively pursued dialogue with their philosophical atheist counterparts (Paul Tillich, David Tracy, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac). There is nothing preventing a sincere and reasonable philosopher from being a sincere and reasonable believer, and vice versa.

At all times, abide by Charles Sanders Peirce’s maxim about not blocking the path of inquiry. It is a worthy rule of thumb because it fosters the kind of humility necessary to know and understand the truth of what is. To paraphrase St. Augustine: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. And rationality. Not to mention humility.

2

Immanuel Kant was wrong about much, a function of his cultural milieu as well as his innovations in taking philosophy down a new, unexplored transcendentalist path. But he was right to maintain, in the Transcendental Dialectic sections of The Critique of Pure Reason, that God-matters could never be the subject of strict theoretical demonstration. Atheistic philosophers and theistic believers are often exasperated at what they take to be their counterparts’ obtuseness. They both should ask themselves, though, why it is that their arguments and counterarguments so often fall on deaf ears. There might be a reason for that.

This, I think, was the lesson of Kant’s dialectic, however dicey his overall position might be. The failure to persuade one’s opponents in religious debate by means of theorizing should tell you something. It indicates that here we run up against the ineluctable limits of theoretical reasoning. One can argue yourself blue in the face to no avail, but a narrative, practical account of how you gained — or lost — religious faith will at least make your position intelligible to your counterparts, and maybe even persuade them if and only if they have ears to hear. Not only is this the best we can expect from religious dialogue, it is the only thing we have a right to expect and, frankly, is more than good enough.

My own narrative path to Episcopal Christianity was fairly straightforward, even if in retrospect it remains more than a bit surprising to me. The election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the crumbling of those norms and practices that sustained the possibility of political decency in the USA, led me to re-read Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologians whom I had not seriously considered since my first encounter with them as an undergraduate. They had many differences, but one thing that they had in common was a firm conviction that one needed a standpoint from which the violence and injustice of the powers-that-be can be effectively challenged, confronted, and, God willing, overcome. Secular philosophies, it seemed to me then as now, either did not afford such standpoints, or the standpoints they did express were inadequate to the task at hand. The rest fell into place.

Contemporary American politics is currently soaked in idolatry. I take it to be an empirical fact that the “civil religion” of the USA is often a form of nationalistic culture-Christianity that worships a false god: it is an idolatry of exceptionalism. But idolatry is a theological category: no theology without Theos. And that just about sums it up for me.

I am enough of a pragmatic fallibilist to admit that I could be wrong about all this, but I am enough of a Kierkegaardian to view my “leap of faith” as a truth that I could live, and less my choice than an event of grace. I wandered, almost by accident, into a church, The Cathedral of the Incarnation, that was close-by to where I grew up and where I now live; I joined the parish and am active in its communal life.

The Episcopal tradition is one that emphasizes right action and worship — orthopraxy — over doctrinal orthodoxy. It is not that the latter is unimportant — it is, which is why the Creeds are taken seriously — but the sacramental life of the church community, its common worship and prayer and service, takes precedence. It goes one better than Kierkegaard, who took faith to be a one-on-One individual relationship with God, by also embodying and mediating this relationship in a sacramental community of worship. In my judgment, the Episcopal church avoids the solipsism and acosmism that threatens Protestantism, while equally avoiding the Catholic obsessions with doctrinal minutiae and hierarchy as an end-in-itself. Theologize to your heart’s content, but keep in mind that common prayer and service matter more.

Part of that service is in building bridges with philosophy, science, and the arts. As my pastor once put it, echoing the Jesuits with whom I studied in college: God does not want you to leave your brains at the church doors. Christianity and other religions should welcome both the challenges and the help that philosophy can afford it. The flip side to this is: philosophers should probably tone it down a notch and not assume that all the religious are thereby irrational. It has become almost a cliché to accuse The New Atheists of an atheist fundamentalism on all fours with religious fundamentalism. But if the shoe fits, wear it.

To reiterate Kant’s dialectical claim: there is a reason why “the God debate” always ends in a stalemate. Better to recognize this, and to philosophically approach God-matters as a motley of narratives rather than arguments, and to reconfigure the common task of both philosophy and religious conviction as one of trying to integrate these narratives, or to provide counter-narratives. Neither philosophy nor faith is a combat zone.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store