This is the second installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices (part 1 is here). In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers who are religious practitioners—they go to church or temple, pray, utter blessings, engage in stoic meditation, read the Torah, serve in the capacity of priest—about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. I have interviewed (and am in the course of interviewing) agnostics, theists and atheists, hopefuls and skeptics. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured.
The present interview is with Leigh Vicens, who is an assistant professor of philosophy at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD where she have been since 2012. This year she is on leave as a research fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. She is also an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.
Could you describe your current religious self-identification/affiliation?
“I was raised in the Episcopal Church. By the end of high school I thought ministry might suit me, and I went to college intending to attend divinity school afterward. Then I got interested in philosophy, which raised a number of doubts in my mind about religion. I was active in a campus ministry group called “The Edge” (short for “Edgerton House”) with a small group of students who also liked to think about “big questions” of faith, and I thought that I might someday become a campus minister myself.
It was suggested to me that I do a summer internship at an Episcopal Church (one of the largest in the country), which allowed me to shadow priests and discern a call to ordained ministry. That ended up being an eye-opening experience where I came to feel that other church leaders (and members) were much more certain about their faith than I was. At the same time, the cost of attending a divinity school on my own dime seemed prohibitive. So I ended up starting at PhD in philosophy instead, intending to study philosophy of religion.
In graduate school I had a lot of fun, but started to worry that my studying rather obscure questions in philosophy was not contributing to the world’s needs. I also stayed involved in campus ministry and began to do a lot of independent reading of “spiritual classics.”
I think it was Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship that eventually led to me to begin the formal discernment process for ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. This is about a 5-year process that involves being interviewed by a number of committees who are supposed to help discern a person’s vocation.
It was discerned that I was, indeed, called to the priesthood, and so I left graduate school and went to seminary. I lived on campus with other students (and faculty), where I was expected to attend daily worship, meals, classes, and other community events. It was quite a formative community. I really appreciated the formation, and the opportunity to immerse myself in theology, but in the end I came to feel that I was not, in fact, called to full-time parish ministry. I found a model of priests at the seminary who were professors and chaplains to the students, and thought that might be more my calling. So, I went back to grad school and completed by PhD in philosophy while working, eventually, halftime at a nearby church.
When I graduated, I got the job at Augustana, a school of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I am a member of a Religion, Philosophy, and Classics department and have several Lutheran pastors as colleagues. I teach sections of philosophy of religion each year, and occasionally preach and lead worship in the campus chapel and at my local Episcopal Church, where I have also started a bible study. I enjoy the balance of teaching, research, and ministry.”
I would like to hear a bit more in detail about your ministry at your local church and the campus chapel. How do you approach these tasks, and how do you combine them with your job as a professor?
“When I was in graduate school I ended up working 20 hours/week as an assistant priest instead of teaching as most of my fellow graduate students were doing. I was in charge of adult formation and pastoral care at my church, and I also regularly preached and led worship. I really enjoyed the combination of independent research (writing my dissertation, mostly weekday mornings and afternoons) and more communal activities (meetings, prayer groups, bible studies, potlucks, etc. in the evenings and weekends). It was also a nice combination of heady philosophy and very practical ministry—helping people through births, deaths, and everything in between.
When I started work as a professor I had to cut back, and the first semester I focused solely on teaching (three new courses). After I got the hang out that, I volunteered my services at the church I had been attending, but the priest there did not need help liturgically. The bishop said I could serve at other churches that did not have full-time clergy, and I did occasionally, but not regularly. (Most of these churches are in rural areas and quite a drive from Sioux Falls, and I wanted to settle down in one place.) Instead, I started a weekly bible study at the church I was attending. Also at Augustana there are three chapel services a week, and at one of them faculty members preach, so once a year I do that.
When I moved to South Bend, I met with the bishop here, and he told me about a church not far from me that lacks a full-time priest. So I got on a rotation there, to preach and lead worship. The other church where I attend is pretty well staffed, but the priest in charge is happy to let me serve liturgically as I am able. (I am now 6 months pregnant and sometimes have trouble standing still for too long, which makes celebrating the Eucharist a bit difficult…. If only it were liturgically acceptable to pace behind the altar!)
I miss being more part of a church community, as I was in graduate school, but I hope the longer I am in one place and the more teaching experience I have under my belt, the more involved I will be able to get again. I don’t think it will ever be the same as when I was officially “on staff” at a church, though. That was a real gift — getting to be part of people’s lives in such an intimate way.”
You mention the combination of heady philosophy and practical ministry – can you say something more about the relationship between these two things? Is there any way in which your ministry informs your philosophy? The way you approach issues, the topics you are interested in, any other interactions?
I think my experiences in ministry do inform my approach to philosophy, in that I am more interested in working on topics that I think have practical import—the ones that seem to make the most difference to people’s faith. For instance, I think a lot of lay people think about the problem of evil, in some form, and relatedly, about the nature of divine providence, and the purpose of prayer.
Issues in religious epistemology also come up occasionally in my conversations with parishioners: how to understand the reasonableness of faith, the authority of Scripture, the possibility and value of experience of God, the meaning of divine hiddenness, etc. Questions that don’t seem to me to inform how most people relate to God and live their lives are ones like how to explicate the doctrine of the Trinity, or Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. So I concern myself less with those. (Perhaps this lack of concern also reflects my Anglican background; Anglican theologians have not traditionally made much attempt to answer such questions, but have been content to say things like “Christ is mysteriously present in the Eucharist” and leave it at that.) I think my ministry with people who are suffering also makes me more skeptical of responses to the problem of evil that I think they would find unsatisfying or implausible.
The philosophy I study does not so much inform my approach to ministry. Doing philosophy can help me determine what not to say in sermons or pastoral situations (read: things that I think are false, like most responses to the problem of evil or divine hiddenness I’ve encountered), but it rarely helps me know what to say.
Also, analytic philosophy of religion can be pretty dry sometimes, and uninspiring in terms of a worshipful attitude toward God. So I try to supplement the philosophy I read for work with other kinds of reading, by philosophers or theologians or preachers or even poets who are good at capturing something of the majesty and transcendence of God, and the profound appeal of the Christian Gospel.
How are other philosophers’ (such as other philosophers of religion) reactions to the fact that you are an ordained minister?
Mostly positive. It is not uncommon among philosophers of religion—at least in the US, most of whom are Christian—to have some background in the study of theology, and/or the practice of ministry. So, for instance, when I attend a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting or conference in philosophy of religion, there are often a few other people there who are either ordained in some denomination, or have worked as youth ministers, music ministers, etc. in a church setting.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I got My Ph.D., most of the professors and graduate students were atheists or agnostics, but even there they were generally supportive of my going to seminary and working in a church (at least the ones who shared their opinions!). I think many philosophers want people to take their religious beliefs seriously, and also recognize that religion can be a force for good—providing a formative moral community for children, for instance, and organizing a lot of service work.
I do have some friends that are not very impressed by the “pageantry” of the Episcopal liturgy, though, and think we would be better off spending our energy and money on charity than, say, beautiful cathedrals or ornate vestments. And, of course, some philosophers think religious belief is positively irrational, and would rather not have a colleague who spends his or her time thinking about religious matters that they believe are quite settled. But I have been blessed with employment in a school supportive of my work.
Thanks to Leigh Vicens for the interview!