On “Christian Philosophy”: Two Views

Last week, the Humanities Center sponsored its annual lecture. Our theme this year is “After Suspicion …”, through which we take up the long aftermath of the sporadic, eclectic, but unmistakable shift away from the constitutional skepticism associated with the work of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (and the extraordinary influence of their work across the twentieth century) toward something like faith (in science and sincerity and healing and transformation and community and so many things besides, including religion). The climate of post-suspicion has bred multiple schools of thought and a remarkable burst of creativity across field after field in the humanities.

Still, there are reasons for residual skepticism, even suspicion. (The ellipsis at the tail of our annual theme implies that and a sense of curiosity, even wonder.) So, for our annual lecture, we invited Gregg Lambert, Dean’s Professor of Humanities at Syracuse University, to remind us of what some of these reasons are. Lambert recently published a provocative book, Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary Philosophy, written piecemeal over the better part of a decade, about why the resurgence of interest in religion may not be what it appears to be. In itself, this hardly comes as news. Who isn’t aware of ways that religion continues to front as an excuse, if not a motivator, of strife across the globe? The most newsworthy examples, of course, are state-defying, religiously motivated terrorist organizations and state-sponsored, religiously sanctioned militaries that inflict war on their own citizens. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that a staggering 65.3 million people have been forced from home, with more than 21 million current refugees. And, to be sure, religious violence (including, if I may put it this way, the religion of secularism: see France on the dogmatic ban on burkinis) takes myriad other forms. But Lambert, whose book is an exercise in subtlety of judgment, prompts us to look past only one side of the ledger. What about some of the defenses of religion one encounters in philosophy, for example? Are they really all that religious? Aren’t many of them simply threadbare conceptual programs that fall far short of the character- and community-building vision of religion that Elder Jeffrey R. Holland invoked in his talk at BYU last month?

In short, is the return to religion all it’s cracked up to be? No, or rather, yes: it’s cracked up, meaning divided and strange. And Lambert puts his mind to the complexities of these various returns to religion in our contemporary moment. His lecture, “Philosophical Fundamentalism Today,” addressed the decomposition of the wedge Martin Heidegger tried to drive between philosophy and theology in the 1920s. There can be no Christian philosophy, Heidegger asserted, because Christianity is a lived experience predicated on the conviction of Christ’s resurrection, whereas philosophy is deliberative, rational, and committed to a kind of perpetual doubt, a constitutional calling into question. And yet, over the past few decades, continental (post-Heidegerrian) philosophy and Christianity have become virtually indistinguishable. At the powerful conclusion of his talk, Lambert played out the consequences of a paradox articulated by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy: the only Christianity that means anything, Nancy asserts, is one that contemplates its own prospective negation (or implication in secular things); and, conversely, atheistic philosophies of Western extraction must contemplate their own deeply Christian origins (in the elucidation of metaphysical systems of thought that these philosophies would later employ to different, secular ends). If the influential theory of Giorgio Agamben takes up the first half of that paradox, Alain Badiou’s takes up the second. Both philosophers, fittingly, have written stirring books about the Apostle Paul.

Lambert’s lecture will be available in a couple weeks on our Humanities Center website. It lays out an intellectually demanding argument, but one that is remarkably lucid, and I encourage any who may not have heard it live to watch it online.

The lecture struck an additional chord with me because of an article I had just read, one that Daryl Lee of BYU’s Department of French and Italian shared with me from the September 2016 issue of Harper’s: “The Watchmen: What Became of the Christian Intellectual?” Its opening paragraph sounds a common refrain by drawing a connection between xenophobic aspects of conservative movements in the US and Europe: the wall-building and Muslim-banishing features of the Trump campaign set alongside the Brexit vote, the devotees of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen in France, the backlash in Germany to the refugee-friendly policies of Angela Merkel, and similar sentiments in political campaigns in Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, and so on. This is a widely recognized source of befuddlement on the Left, and a frequently contemptuous one (see: “deplorables, basket of”). What has happened, such onlookers ask, to the vision of secular progress and the grand narrative of enlightenment?

The article conjures this typical scene for the purpose of taking the following turn:

It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation — people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.

Where are such intellectuals to be found? “Everywhere!” Lambert might say. “Nowhere!” the article proclaims. And it was not always so: a little over a half-century ago, religious liberals (equivalent, in their way, to Heidegger’s Christian philosophers) played a prominent role in public life. T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others worried in newspaper articles, radio programs, books published by popular presses, and public lectures about the specter of fascism, naturally, but they also expressed anxiety about an Allied victory achieved through the blunt force of technocratic dominance. What these intellectuals wanted was something like a widely distributed sense of spiritual plenitude, a shared moral vision conducive to human thriving—a victory of what Marx called Ideology, though they would have disputed as much as embraced that characterization.

I won’t reconstruct the entire article, which is a historical overview of why and when the Christian Left vanished. In fairness, and obviously, not all Christian intellectuals were liberals. Neither are Christian intellectuals across the political spectrum entirely absent in the present day: after all, Cornel West and David Brooks, for all their differences upon differences, float through the ether. But this animal, this postmodern-era “Christian philosopher,” lacks the gravitas, or perhaps simply the readymade audience, of its ancestors. At least in America.

One last point that seems especially striking, particularly in light of Lambert’s lecture, concerns the article’s perspective on President Obama’s favorite Christian intellectual: Marilynne Robinson—who, it so happens, had spoken at BYU the week prior to Lambert. Alan Jacobs, the article’s author (who teaches at Baylor and is a prolific writer himself), professes great admiration for Robinson, a consummate prose stylist and vivid thinker. And yet, he remarks, she often wags her finger at benighted Christians who hold views different from hers about health care, criminal justice, the environment, or what-have-you. By contrast, Jacobs remarks,

when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them.

As such, she castigates as much as explains the mindset of many Christians, alienating not one but two publics (since her essays often chide secular readers for their failure to consider the possibility of God’s existence). What is more, Jacobs adds, even the characters in Robinson’s novels lead solitary existences. There is really very little that seems “public” about Robinson’s Christian imagination.

Is this an accurate way to describe Robinson’s work? If so, it almost makes Lambert’s point, albeit in a different key. To reprise the paradox enunciated by Nancy: the only Christianity that means anything is one that contemplates its own negation, whereas the atheistic philosophies that nominally oppose Christianity must contemplate their own Christian origins. Robinson’s voice is thoroughly Christian, except when it isn’t, at which point we enlist the help of … continental atheists like Badiou?

This all raises some large questions: What does religion even mean in today’s public sphere? And what does it mean to be a religious university (a would-be home to, and even a synonym for, the kind of “Christian philosophy” Heidegger claimed to be untenable, but which today seems at once everywhere and nowhere, at least if we read Lambert alongside Jacobs)? As BYU’s motto declares, “the world is our campus.” But that only begs one of Heidegger’s most insistent questions: what is a world? More specifically, for us, what is a world “After Suspicion …”?

Matthew Wickman, Founding Director

BYU Humanities Center

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