This is the sixteenth 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. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3,4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15. 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 Kristen Irwin, an assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago.
Can you tell me something about your current academic work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I specialize in the early modern period, particularly the seventeenth century. My 2010 dissertation was on the nature and function of reason and belief in the thought of Pierre Bayle, but I have broad interests in the treatment of rationality, religious beliefs, and moral beliefs by modern philosophers. I also dabble in contemporary philosophy of religion and metaethics.
My religious affiliation is… not entirely straightforward! My most obvious identification is as a follower of Jesus Christ in the sense indicated by traditional statements of Christian belief such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, interpreted in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Beyond that, however, things get… complicated. I’ve found that I’m a bit of an oddball, religiously speaking: With respect to religious practices, I have a deep appreciation for—maybe even a love of?—traditional liturgy, and I find a certain freedom and invitation in its privileging of embodiment in one’s interaction with God. At the same time, I value the spontaneity and sincerity of more contemporary forms of worship, and acknowledge the vitality and authenticity of those practices. I also tend to shy away from the hierarchical authority structures generally associated with groups that adopt traditional liturgical practices, especially in light of the ways that this authority has been misused and abused, to the detriment both of those within the church, and outside of the church.
Similarly, I find myself identifying with, and finding explanatory power in, many of the traditional positions of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” in areas such as spiritual formation, the importance of studying Scripture regularly and carefully, the importance of being in community with others on the same journey, and particularly the life recommended in the Sermon on the Mount: being with, and for, the marginalized as a result of identifying with Jesus. At the same time, I struggle with other aspects of traditional Christianity, specifically as it has been appropriated by American Christendom (the glorification of capitalism and prosperity, the adoption of problematic assumptions and practices with respect to gender, the obsession with the behavior of others as a way to avoid attending to one’s own character, etc.).
An armchair psychoanalysis of my religious history makes my current convoluted religious identification unsurprising. My religious DNA includes strands that are fundamentalist (understood as a theologically, socially, and politically conservative form of evangelicalism); Southern Baptist; American Baptist; Presbyterian (USA); nondenominational Christian hedonist; and Lutheran (LCMS). My current home in the Evangelical Covenant Church is partly a contingent result of circumstances, but also a reflection that I’ve chosen to focus on what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”, or what the ECC calls “basic affirmations”. I very much appreciate their “big tent” approach to the life of faith, and their hospitality to “theological mutts” like myself—and to anyone who is seeking to understand, and go deeper into, a life of faith—is extraordinarily inclusive.
Could you explain what draws you to traditional liturgy, and how the ECC approaches liturgy?
Having grown up in a context devoid of traditional liturgy, my first exposure to it as an undergraduate was curious and wonderful! I was (and am) attracted to the connection it gives me across time and space to millions of other followers of Jesus. As a double major in history and philosophy, learning the stories behind the creeds, prayers, and structure of the liturgy made it even more theologically and existentially rich for me. I understand the concern that liturgy can become “rote” or “empty”, but I think that with a little creativity and concentration, those worries can be avoided.
The ECC’s identity means that there is not one “right” way to conduct an ECC worship service; one will thus find incredible variation in worship within the denomination, including everything from a pseudo-concert environment (or what some might call “low church”) to a “smells-and-bells” service (or what some might call “high church”). My own congregation’s worship is a mix: we tend to follow a quasi-traditional liturgy, but with more contemporary musical worship. This fits my heterogeneous worship background pretty well!
Most meaningful to me in our liturgical worship are the time of confession, and the sacrament of communion. Towards the beginning of the service, there is always an opportunity to engage in corporate confession—owning up to the ways in which we, as a community, have fallen short of loving God and others—as well as individual confession — owning up to the ways in which each of us individually has failed to love God and others. (I am always struck by the line “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone”.) The period of silent reflection just after that is always super uncomfortable for me(!), but it makes the declaration of God’s forgiveness afterwards particularly powerful and healing: I don’t deserve it, and yet here it is, again. Why? I don’t know; it is neither rational nor fair. As Philip Yancey (1997) says, grace is a profoundly scandalous thing.
The sacrament of communion is alien to my upbringing; I was taught to think of communion as simply a time to “remember” the death of Jesus once a month. And the ECC has room for lots of different positions on the Eucharist (another name for communion), so I don’t want to represent my understanding of it as normative. The way that I participate in it, however, communion is actually a sacrament, by which I mean a vehicle or means of divine grace. I don’t know that I would have said that even as recently as 8 years ago, but I had a very powerful experience taking communion in April 2008 that convinced me of its sacramental importance; I’m not sure that I would necessarily call it a mystical experience, but it was certainly unlike any other experience I’ve ever had, religious or otherwise. In any case, since then, I’ve tried to be particularly attentive during communion to the ways in which God might be making grace available to me. I’m grateful to be a part of a community that does this not just once a month, but every week!
Could you tell me how these (and potentially, other) religious practices connect to your work in philosophy? (As I gather from your work, you have written several papers about rationality of religious belief. How does rationality of religious belief connect to religious practices?)
As a person of faith and a philosopher, of course I’ve wrestled with the standard philosophical questions associated with religious belief: Is religious belief merely contingent, a byproduct of upbringing and culture? If so, what’s the epistemic significance of that? Is there any good evidence to think that Christian religious belief (as opposed to more generic religious belief, or abstaining from religious belief entirely) is rational/reliable/veridical/etc.? Ought rationality to be the standard by which I judge my religious beliefs? And so forth…
Interestingly, I’ve found that the more deeply I investigate the various seventeenth-century accounts of the relationship between rationality and religious belief, the more optimistic I become about my own religious beliefs and practices. I don’t know if this is causation or correlation, because at the same time that my research program has been progressing, I’ve developed an increased appreciation for the importance of attending to the lived experience of individuals as they engage with things of existential importance. This means that I’ve been paying more attention to how people’s lives are transformed—both for better and for worse—as they undergo difficult experiences of various kinds, and how those experiences provide evidence for or against Christian religious belief. Partly as a result of these investigations, and partly as a result of my own such experiences, I’m now more inclined than I used to be to treat these kinds of experiences as a type of evidence.
I’m still not sure that I have a well-worked-out position on these issues, but I do think that I’m less concerned now with the project of “demonstrating the rationality of Christian religious belief” than I am with working out the implications of Christian religious belief (understood in a “mere Christianity” kind of a way) for the experiences and practices of those who profess it. I think that Christianity is a deeply humanistic religion—that is, it is oriented towards the good of humans insofar as they are made in the image of God, insofar as God takes the good of humankind as one of God’s ends, and insofar as the central figure of Christianity is a divine-human. If that’s right, then the practices of those who profess it ought to conduce to the good of humans in general, and not just to the good of those who profess Christianity. I think this partially explains my continued attraction both to the beliefs of Christianity, and to its practices: I have found that many traditional Christian disciplines—prayer, worship, meditation, studying Scripture, tithing, gathering in community, solitude, simplicity, etc. —not only shape my will towards God, but also reorient me towards God’s work in the lives of those around me. These practices are a healthy balance to the abstract theorizing and detached analysis characteristic of much of philosophy, and this combination of the practical and the theoretical has greatly strengthened my faith.
Given that much philosophy of religion is still concerned with the rationality of Christian religious belief, do you think philosophy of religion ought to evolve in different directions, such as paying more attention to practices? What other areas in contemporary philosophy of religion would you like to see get more attention?
This is where I’m pretty ecumenical in my conception of philosophy of religion. On the one hand, I definitely think that attending to the rationality of one’s religious beliefs is an essential and important task, and especially so for philosophers of religion, who are particularly qualified for the task! On the other hand, I’m acutely aware that there are both theoretical and practical features of the landscape of contemporary philosophy of religion that cast a shadow on the universality and objectivity of its analyses.
Christina Van Dyke and Victoria Harrison, in a Pacific APA session a few years ago, have pointed out some of the ways in which contemporary philosophy of religion tends to be less-than-friendly to women and to areas not directly connected to Christian theism. I’ve surmised that this is, at least in part, a result of a deficit of attention to concrete embodied practices. After all, the subject of philosophy of religion is not some arcane topic that non-philosophers generally ignore; it is religion, one of the most common matters of concern to humankind. And the studying of philosophy of religion will inevitably be marked by the practices of religion—and by the particular practices of the particular religions under study (in the case of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy of religion, the practices of Christian theism). If Christian theism is currently setting the agenda in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, and if significant parts of Christian theism are marked by exclusionary practices, then it makes sense that some of those practices might find their way into philosophy of religion.
So I think the current narrowness of the field has both theoretical and practical causes: implicit philosophical (or, in some cases, explicit theological) assumptions, as well as historical practices that arose on the basis of those assumptions. I think that any proposed solution must address both the theoretical assumptions, and the harmful practices that arose from them. Solutions might include expanding of the scope of topics in philosophy of religion (including embodied religious practices, non-Western religions, etc.), reforming the professional practices of philosophers of religion, both, or other solutions yet unconceptualized. I think whether the field diversifies will depend largely upon the accurate recognition of the uniqueness and complexity of the problem. This presupposes, of course, that those currently working in philosophy of religion recognize that there is a problem. I’m encouraged in this regard by the philosophers of religion that I’ve met who have been working not only to attend to their own professional practices (and how they might be unwittingly exclusionary), but also to help others into a greater awareness of how to make the field more inclusionary (both with respect to topics and with respect to practitioners).