Philosophers and their religious practices, part 7: Circumventing the philosopher
April 8, 2015 — 6:01

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 1

This is the seventh installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 45 and 6. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.

This interview is with Terence Cuneo, Professor at the University of Vermont.

Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification? – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.

I’m full professor at the University of Vermont. (I hold the Marsh Chair of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy.) I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Although one side of my family (my mother’s side) has a strong Orthodox representation, I wasn’t raised Orthodox. (I was raised Protestant, attending a variety of different Protestant churches.) I came into the Orthodox church as a young adult.

Could you tell me, in detail, what attracted you to the Orthodox church? Theology, rituals, both, something else?

Three things, I think.

First, I was attracted by the beauty of the liturgies, especially, but not only the music. When the liturgies are done well (and they often aren’t), I find them to be incredibly beautiful. For me, this was an avenue by which I could enter into—genuinely participate in—the service.  In addition to the music, the art, the poetry of the liturgical text, the bodily movements: I found it all deeply attractive. (This was not my immediate reaction; it took years of attending services to hone my sensibilities.) For years, when I was Protestant, the sermon for me was the most important element of the service. (I don’t think I was unusual in this regard; it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, given the structure of the service.) And the sermon was so frequently a disappointment, especially for someone who can’t help but think philosophically about its content. I found that the Orthodox approach, which emphasizes beauty and hymnody (and not the sermon), was able to reach me at a different place, one that circumvented the philosopher, as it were.

Second, I appreciated the church’s fidelity to tradition, its long memory, and important elements of its theological thinking (or perhaps, better, the trajectory of their theological thinking).  There were and are sticking points in the theology. I’ve learned that I needn’t accept everything that has theological currency in the Eastern church to be Orthodox. (I never found myself attracted to the very pronounced apophaticism of much of its theology, for example.) But other aspects of it, I found myself very attracted to. In a nutshell, I’d describe it as the absence of Augustine’s influence: no predestination, no original guilt, no bad views of justification by faith alone, etc. There was a pronounced Universalist tradition within the church that I appreciate very much. The Orthodox approach to scripture I also found appealing: the tradition reads the scriptural text with a great deal of freedom but always within the parameters set by the tradition. So, Christ’s divinity is never in question. But there is little or no pressure to read lots of stories in the Hebrew bible as historical records.

Third, I felt as if the church understood prayer and worship and could put tools into my hands that could help me to make progress in the spiritual life.  Regular services, fasting, almsgiving, confession, rule of prayer: these were dimensions of the Christian life that were missing from nearly all the other branches of Christendom to which I’d been exposed. I liked the fact that the church emphasized that progress in the spiritual life is both possible and requires work.

My approach has never been the Eastern church has got all the theology, practice, worship, etc. right. Rather, it’s been that it seems to be the best option available, at least for those with sensibilities such as mine.

You say that the Orthodox tradition circumvents the philosopher – Some of your work does engage with the practices of the Orthodox tradition. Could you say a bit more about this (for readers who are unfamiliar with your work – give them some sense of what it’s about), and about how the practices you engage in in the church influence your philosophical work more generally?

Sure. When I say that I found that participation in the liturgy circumvents the philosopher is just that we philosophers are trained to approach and find ourselves approaching topics and thinking about them in certain ways. As I mentioned a moment ago, in a typical Protestant service, the sermon is the centerpiece. The arrangement—people seated listening to a talk—is not too different from what happens in a classroom. And so the philosopher goes to work on the sermon’s content! For multiple reasons, I found that typically this was not terribly helpful to me.

In the Orthodox liturgy, the sermon is not the centerpiece and the language used in its hymnody (nearly the entirety of the liturgy is sung) is highly poetic, filled with imagery. This poetry and imagery—and the art—I found, was able to speak to me in a way very different from that of a sermon or of a declaration. As I mentioned, this didn’t come naturally; it required the development of sensibilities different from those I’m accustomed to using—ones similar to those employed when “drinking in” art or music. In his book on religious experience, Howie Wettstein speaks of “uncrystallized” language, which resists precise propositional articulation but still speaks to us. Some of this language is jarring (think of some the Psalms that are chanted); some images pull against others (immanence/transcendence of God); some are comforting (Theotokos with child). The liturgy is full of such language. And I found that it spoke and continues to speak to me. Although I find myself without the tools to think about it well, the use of the body in the liturgy is important. There are connections between the use of the body (kissing, prostrating, bowing, etc.) and the poetic imagery that I don’t quite understand yet. (Maybe I never will.) But I have the sense that they are deeply connected, and I want to think about it more.

As for my own work, Oxford University Press will publish my book Ritualized Faith: Essays in the Philosophy of Liturgy this coming year. The book is a collection of essays I’ve written on a variety of topics regarding liturgy (nearly all concern the Eastern Orthodox liturgies).

Several essays are on the ethical dimensions of liturgical activity—why it is ethically important to engage in liturgy in which we do such things as symbolically stand for the good and against evil, bless those who hate us, and so forth. A couple essays are about what is going on in the liturgy when the participants speak in the voice of characters such as Adam, Mary Theotokos, Joseph of Arimathea, etc. One essay is on the role of icons; another is on the role of singing in the liturgy. (I was really surprised to find that philosophers have not written about singing, as best I can tell, at all.) There is an essay on the baptismal rite that tries to make sense of the puzzling things that the text of this rite says. There is another essay that explores what the liturgical text could mean when it says that partaking of Eucharist, baptism, and anointing with oil are for “the remission of sin.” And so on. The book ends with an autobiographical essay (“Entering through Death, Living with Doubt” that was originally published in a collection of essays edited by Rico Vitz., Turning East.)

Many of these essays are the fruit of having attended liturgy for years and at points being caught up short. I’d ask myself: What could that mean? Or: What’s the point of that? And I found myself reflecting on topics way off the beaten path for a philosopher, even for a philosopher of religion.

In one of your earlier interviews, you interviewed Marcus Arvan. I found that interview really interesting because much of what he said resonated with me. Like Marcus, I’d hesitate to describe the attitudes I have regarding the claims that the Christian tradition makes as that of belief. I find myself committed to these claims, as they play an important practical role in my life and shape the way I view the world. And I don’t think that they’re false. But the attitudes I have toward these claims seem to be something different from belief. Along the way, I’ve come to hold that belief, for many of us, isn’t at the heart of things in the religious life. But neither – at least for me – is the religious life simply engaging in the practices. Rather, I’m inclined to think that, for many – myself included – an attitude of openness or receptivity to God (read this de dicto) and what a tradition teaches is more fundamental than belief or faith. One can lack belief or faith and yet sensibly participate in a religious way of life because one is open or receptive to what that way of life teaches and God, even if one harbors doubt – sometimes very deep doubt – about both.

You say, “receptivity to God and what a tradition teaches is more fundamental than belief or faith”. Could you elaborate what this means?

My thought is belief-in God and faith in God in their paradigmatic forms incorporate an attitude of openness or receptivity to God and God’s action but the reverse isn’t true. One could have this attitude of receptivity without having belief-in or faith. I’d go further and say that having an attitude of receptivity to the divine is not only compatible with not belief in God or faith, but also with having a host of other attitudes, including accepting the proposition that God exists (a view developed in William Alston’s work) or acting on the assumption that God exists (a view developed in Daniel Howard-Snyder’s work).

As I see it, openness or receptivity to divine action or initiative can bear different relations to evidence and perception of value. Having evidence for God’s existence and activity in the world—whether in the form of testimony, experience, or argument – can rationalize (that is, make sense of) taking up the attitude or wanting to take up the attitude. That said, having and taking steps toward having the attitude can withstand a lot of evidence against God’s existence and activity in the world; a substantial amount of negative evidence would not render it irrational to take up and sustain an attitude of openness or receptivity to the divine. This attitude can, moreover, be sensitive to the value of that to which one is open or receptive. Seeing that God’s existence and activity would be something that could render one’s life and the lives of others worthwhile can rationalize taking up and sustaining this attitude of openness.

Moreover, the attitude can be the basis of practical action and rationalize such action: it can make sense of orienting one’s life around certain religious practices and ideals, such as participating in regular religious worship or prayer. In these respects, openness to divine action or initiative is sensitive to two dimensions of religious life to which philosophers have given attention: our evidential situation and the evaluative dimensions of religious life. Indeed—and this ties into the earlier discussion of liturgy—when we appreciate the role and worth of such activity, we can also appreciate that agents can sensibly engage in ritualized religious activity from a wide variety of motivations ranging from wholehearted devotion to God to a type of agnosticism that sees the worth of engaging in this type of activity.

Many thanks to Terence Cuneo for this interview!





  • D. Scott


    I must say how much I’ve enjoyed this series you’ve been presenting. I’ve read each one and it’s not easy to pick the ones I like best. Well done! And thank you!

    Also thank you Mr. Cuneo, for citing the work of Daniel Howard-Snyder. Most intriguing!

    D. Scott

    April 9, 2015 — 10:14
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