This is the nineteenth 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, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. 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 J. Aaron Simmons, Associate Professor in philosophy at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
Currently, I am an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I have been at Furman for five years and prior to coming here I held positions at Hendrix College, The University of the South (Sewanee), and Vanderbilt University.
Most of my work is in philosophy of religion and occurs in light of phenomenology and existentialism. That said, I have also done work in political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and the history of philosophy (especially focusing on the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, Emmanuel Levinas, and the “new phenomenology” of Michel Henry, Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Luc Marion).
In general, there are two questions that keep me up at night and continue to cause me to get up every morning and keep working. The first is “What are the possibilities for and the fate of determinate religious belief and identity in postmodernism?” The second is “How might philosophers stop calling for the overcoming of the so-called analytic/continental divide and simply do constructive work that no longer reinforces the divide?” Ultimately, these two questions dovetail together in my thinking and writing.
I have been advocating the notion of “mashup philosophy of religion” for some time now and the basic idea is that philosophers of religion should draw on whatever resources that are relevant to the questions being asked—regardless of which tradition in which those resources reside: continental, analytic, process, feminist, pragmatic, etc. So, when I think about determinate religious belief in postmodernism, I often appeal to work by thinkers such as Linda Zagzebski, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston, but also to thinkers such as Derrida, Marion, and Kierkegaard. All of these thinkers take seriously the notion of identity in relation to communities of discourse and the way that experience is always already interpreted therein. The fact that they use different philosophical styles and technical vocabularies should not preclude our being able to consider them all interlocutors in the task of philosophically thinking well about what is called “religion.” As one further point here, I think that philosophers of religion also need to draw more effectively and substantively on work in religious studies or the “academic study of religion” (especially in the area of critical theory of religion). Though philosophy of religion has been effectively engaging theology and the cognitive sciences in recent years, similar engagement with religious studies is less prominent. As just two possible benefits of such engagement, I think that cross-cultural appreciation and an interest in embodied practice are two specific aspects that religious studies can productively bring to bear on the sometimes “insular,” “narrow,” and “cognitivist” tendencies of contemporary philosophy of religion (whether analytic or continental) (I am borrowing terminology here from Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy and the Study of Religions [Wiley-Blackwell, 2014]).
The positive view I give to the question of determinate religious belief/identity in postmodernism is something that I term “postmodern kataphaticism.” The basic idea of postmodern kataphaticism is built on the belief that postmodernism is best understood as an epistemic thesis about the status of inquiry and the hermeneutic limits that attend to such inquiry. As such, there is no specific metaphysical or ontological or theological commitments required by postmodernism, but instead merely a realization that we necessarily relate to whatever views we affirm from within our embodied, socio-historical, and finite perspectives. So, specifically, postmodern kataphaticism allows for someone to affirm metaphysical realism while also being epistemically anti-realist. In other words, perhaps reality is rightly understood as a mind-independent state of affairs, and maybe we do/can have knowledge of the way reality is, but even if both of those claims are right, I don’t think we can know that we have such knowledge and so all affirmation in this regard is rightly attended by existential risk. The limits to our inquiry need not, however, restrict the possibilities for religious belief—only the way that such belief is held. Postmodern kataphaticism acknowledges that we might be determinately Christian, Jewish, atheist, or whatever, and also that the postmodern frame in which such identities are affirmed and performed calls us to humility, hospitality, and honesty in our dealings with ourselves, members of our community, and people who are not.
As for my religious affiliation, I identify as a pentecostal Christian. I use the lowercase ‘p’ in pentecostal, here, following James K.A. Smith’s idea of “big tent pentecostalism” whereby being pentecostal is less about a particular denominational affiliation or a specific conception of glossolalia, etc., and more about the way in which pneumatology is the frame in which my theology gets worked out. That said, I grew up in the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) and I still identify as part of that denominational tradition. My grandfather, Ernie T. Hitte, was a pastor in the Church of God, and my parents have both spent their careers as faculty at Lee University (which is a Church of God institution). So, because of my denominational context, I would also count as a capital-P Pentecostal, I guess, though I find that less helpful and less compelling as a way of understanding pentecostalism more generally.
Could you give a sense of what the practices of (P)pentecostal Christians involve, or specifically what a service looks like (what do people do and what it signifies) for those who unfamiliar with this tradition?
So, I often teach a course entitled “God and Justice” and I once tried to use Pentecostalism as an example for a point I was making and I showed different videos of services and it turned out that I was at a loss for how to make it seem even slightly less strange to folks who had not grown up in the tradition. That said, I am not sure I will do much better this time in response to your question, but I will try.
Ok, well, first, I think that pentecostalism (lower-case p) is primarily a matter of cultivating what Amos Yong terms the “pneumatalogical imagination” and what James K.A. Smith refers to as living in light of a “spirited reality.” The point is that pentecostalism is more a matter of an existential pneumatalogical orientation in which one’s theology and one’s subjectivity both play forth, than it is a matter of affirming specific propositions about initial evidence of spirit indwelling, etc. Thinking well about what propositions should be affirmed is certainly important, but I take it that pentecostalism allows for imagination to be an access point into rationality. In this way, and I have argued this in a recent paper, Kierkegaard’s notion of faith occurring “by virtue of the absurd” is perhaps properly thought of as a kind of pentecostal expression. I don’t mean to endorse irrationality, but merely the importance of understanding that embodied faithfulness is irreducible to reason-giving (and I think we can give good reasons to think this!). When understood accordingly, pentecostalism (although historically primarily rooted in the 1906 Azuza Street Revival) maintains the idea of divine excess that is, in many ways, the hallmark of medieval mysticism, while resisting the asceticism that so often accompanied such medieval expressions. Indeed, part of what gets lost in many contemporary Pentecostal (capital-P) communities is a grasp of the radically progressive social orientation of the early 20th century revivals. All one needs to do is pay attention to the fact that such revivals were led by African-Americans (e.g., William Seymour) and by women (e.g., Aimee Semple McPherson) to realize the frequent problems of largely segregated denominations and rampant patriarchy throughout so much of contemporary Pentecostalism. In the “spirit” of Kierkegaard, perhaps what is needed is for someone to bring pentecost to Pentecostalism (I think that Yong and Smith have made good strides in this direction).
Second, I don’t think that there is any “one thing” that is definitive of Pentecostal worship services. A lot depends on the specific denomination and the specific geographical region in which a particular congregation is located, etc. For example, I am part of the Church of God, but the Church of God in Tennessee and Florida might have a quite different feel, as it were, than the Church of God in Minnesota or Oregon. Moreover, a Church of the Foursquare Gospel with 100 members will likely present itself very differently than the Assemblies of God church with 5,000 members just down the road. So, I won’t try to give an account that would hold up from the perspective of a sociologist of religion, but instead I will simply appeal to my own experience of growing up in rather large congregations within the Church of God in the American South.
Services in my tradition tend to be characterized by energetic worship and usually this worship is inaugurated by fairly extended periods of musical praise (featuring a wide variety of instruments and vocalists). When I was growing up, it was usual to see a large choir in robes, but that has generally shifted to a small praise team in skinny jeans and graphic t-shirts. I am not sure whether this change is good or bad, but it does allow for a more laid back atmosphere in the service, which I figure can be beneficial since Christians tend to take themselves way too seriously, which tends to reflect a situation in which God is not taken seriously enough. Yet, it can be the case that such informality leads to its own sort of self-righteousness in that the “sexy” church feels superior to the “old-fashioned” church next door. As for me, I kind of like the idea of “old time religion” but it is important to encourage being comfortable in church in order that we can then be disrupted and troubled by God. If church is already uncomfortable, then we probably won’t stick around long enough to be challenged by glory. Of course, it is probably for that reason that I often long for a more liturgical component so that the depth of holiness and what C.S. Lewis terms the “weight of glory” is not missed due to being distracted by the video production team, etc.
Anyway, the point is that the Pentecostal churches in which I was raised are not places where falling asleep was much of a temptation. I grew up playing the drums in church and so participating in the musical aspect of the service is very much the way that I learned to worship God. To this day, I find the music often to be more important to me than the preaching (since I figure that I am blessed to get to reflect on faith and theology in my own daily activities as a philosopher of religion (though I would make a hard distinction between being a theologian and being a philosopher), the need for hearing the pastor is less crucial to me on most Sundays than hearing the congregation come together in singing, dancing, and yeah, sometimes even running, shaking, and speaking in tongues). I will get to tongues in a minute (even though it is not really central to my own conception of pentecostalism), but let me try to say something about the reason that I find the musical dimension of worship to be so important for pentecostal identity. Since Pentecostalism is not a tradition characterized by high liturgical practice, the way in which Christian faith gets embodied is more ubiquitous. Let me provide an analogy. I am quite a metal-head when it comes to music (though I also listen to a bunch of conscious hip-hop) and I struggle to listen to music as merely background noise. I like music that calls for an active response—a physical and full-throated response. This is why (though I am getting too old now, my wife says I have always been too old, sigh), I like the idea of moshing. When at a metal concert, the point is not simply to appreciate the music being performed by the band, but to participate in the music by creating the atmosphere in which the music makes sense. I think that the same thing applies to pentecostal worship services. I am not there simply to listen to some other folks sing a little bit prior to moving into the next part of the service (usually transitioning by the request from a pastor to “greet someone next to you”). Rather, the music is like the ancient call of the shofar that brings the people of God together in one place, and in one spirit.
The fact that people in my churches jump and dance, or whatever (I have seen some crazy stuff!), simply illustrates that there is no embodied hiddenness from the divine. Here we are, together, singing and praising God. The model, of course, is the Upper Room in the book of Acts. There is no one right way to be “here,” but instead the point is to be fully present—whatever that looks like to you. For me, when I am playing the drums, I am very animated. But, when I am simply in the congregation, I am very reserved. This is the way things are for me. It is how I find myself participating. The point is that in worship I am physically implicated. As the hip-hop artist KRS-One rightly says, “you can’t observe a hop, you gotta hop up and do it.” I don’t know what it means simply to observe worship, I only know what it means to find myself worshiping. And in finding myself in this way, I also lose myself and my self-awareness such that being worried about what others will think simply becomes irrelevant. As such, pentecostal services are defined by embodied participation, but also by freedom—freedom of expression, freedom from egoism, and freedom to lose one’s inhibitions. The phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien says that prayer is wounding because it calls us beyond ourselves toward the Other. I think that worship does something similar. It is in worship that I am fully, and physically, oriented toward the divine. Accordingly, I am glad that philosophers such as Michelle Panchuck are beginning to take worship seriously as a philosophical topic. Importantly, though, for pentecostals, the God that we worship is not some abstract principle, but a fully personal God who is named as “with us.”
Well, I guess that I now need to say something about speaking in tongues. Sigh. I sigh here simply because I think that the costs are (too) high when the pneumatalogical imagination gets reduced to glossolalia. Yet, I affirm the reality of speaking in tongues and so it is certainly an aspect of my pneumatalogical imagination. If Heidegger is right to say that “language is the house of being,” then speaking in a heavenly language, as it were, might provide a kind of “escape” that Heidegger and Levinas never could have considered. That said, I have never spoken in tongues myself. So, I can’t give a first-personal account of it, but I can give a first-personal account of existing in light of its reality. The weird part, I guess, is that it is simply normal to me. I get that this will sound simply bizarre to many readers—and this is understandable considering that so much hype and worked-up flair can be associated with the phenomenon (just a quick search for “speaking in tongues” on YouTube will demonstrate this quite readily). There are a lot of dangers that can be associated with the “signs and wonders” that far too often become the “point,” as it were, of Pentecostalism, and it is for that reason (among others) that I continue to stress the lower-case p as more reflective of where I find myself. I will resist engaging in a theological defense of the phenomenon and instead simply provide what I consider to be a compelling phenomenological question.
If God is personal in the ways that many Christians claim and the divine life is actively and relationally engaged with the world, then it makes sense that that relation would itself be personal in ways that are physical for us—indeed, I don’t know how it is possible for human beings to make sense of personality except in physical terms (here I am influenced by the work of cognitive linguistics, and let me recommend the forthcoming book by John Sanders, Theology in the Flesh, that explores the theological implications of conceptual metaphor theory). If this is plausible, then it seems entirely reasonable to me that the divine presence would be excessive of the capacities of our physicality. In this sense, why would we be surprised by the physical manifestations of divine overflow? It is as if our bodies can’t contain it. But, come on, the Bible says that Moses glowed after simply seeing the shadow of God, so if the Holy Spirit is personally active in the world, why would it be strange to see bodies unable to handle it? The weight of glory might be a bit too heavy for natural language.
Again, don’t hear this as a philosophical argument or theological defense for the actuality of glossolalia, but simply as a phenomenological question that, I hope, will at least interrupt the ability to dismiss speaking in tongues outright. Just like prayer and worship, glossolalia should put us in question. Sometimes when we think we have the answers, we can’t even ask good questions. It is in this respect that I once wrote that I think of God according to the following disjunction: Either God is trouble or God is nothing. By this I mean that either God is more than merely our conception (‘God’ is not God), and as such God should trouble us when we stop worrying that our very faith amounts to idolatry, or God is nothing in the sense that our own conception is fine on its own and so God gets ushered out the back of our churches because ‘God’ has taken all the seats.
Could you say how the worship you describe, e.g., playing music, dance, plays a role in your work as a philosopher? As you say “I find the music often to be more important to me than the preaching (since I figure that I am blessed to get to reflect on faith and theology in my own daily activities as a philosopher of religion).” How is this reflection influenced by the practices you describe?
You mean in ways other than making this interview possible? Ha! Well, let me back into this question a bit by saying that I think it is a good idea not to make the boundary between philosophy and theology too porous. Elsewhere I have argued at length (probably too much length, sigh) that philosophy and theology are best understood in terms of different disciplinary centers defined in relation to different epistemic standards. Put all too briefly, the idea is that philosophy should be guided by a commitment to arguments that only admit of immediate evidence that is, in principle though probably not in practice, available to all other members of the disciplinary community. So, I am generally resistant to the idea of “Christian philosophy” if that simply means starting with confessional evidence and assumptions that are unavailable to non-Christians. Theology, alternatively, can and should take as immediate evidence that which operates within a revelational or ecclesial community (rather than a philosophical one, etc.).
My view on this is motivated by my belief that philosophy and theology must be mutually engaged, but this is most likely to happen in productive ways, I think, when both discourses and communities are distinct enough to allow for genuine dialogue. Of course, a philosopher can write from confessional starting-points, but doing so requires us to rethink the status of the work as perhaps better viewed as philosophical theology, rather than philosophy proper. Again, my hope is that this allows philosophers to take theology seriously as a critical resource, and vice-versa, rather than philosophers not having to take theology seriously because they are already theologians (but usually without the disciplinary training to claim such an identity in an academic setting). Ironically, this cuts the other direction too. Part of what worries me about much of “Continental philosophy of religion,” for example, is that it is often a discourse that occurs outside of philosophy departments and by scholars without specifically philosophical training. In order for all of us to learn from each other, it is important that we not allow our disciplinary centers to be too easily interchangeable.
So, with that as something of a meta-philosophical framework, let me turn to the way that my own religious practices relate to my work as a philosopher. When it comes to evidential assumptions, they don’t (well, at least I hope that they don’t). In other words, I avoid starting from my Christian identity and then moving forward in philosophical thinking (not because it is a bad thing to do, but simply because I don’t think it is the best way to understand philosophy in its current context). However, I have no doubt that my Christianity affects what questions I am especially interested in asking. In fact, once after giving a job-talk on the idea of kenosis as deployed in Derrida’s political philosophy I was told by one of the faculty at that institution: “you must be a Christian because no one else would write on this topic.” I entirely disagree with that specific assessment (and think that there are easy counter-examples that could be offered), but the general sentiment is probably not entirely misguided. For example, I have done a lot of work trying to defend the possibilities for determinate religious belief and identity in the context of deconstructive postmodernism. The arguments that I offer do not require any specific affirmation of determinate religious truth, but it is certainly plausible to suggest that my interest in offering such arguments arises, in some sense, out of my own religious identity. Nonetheless, I try very carefully to distinguish between philosophical considerations of questions that are relevant to religion, on the one hand, and philosophically framed considerations that are, themselves, religious, on the other hand. In my work as an academic philosopher, I am more interested in the former than the latter. As a Christian, however, I am interested in both.
And yet (isn’t there always an ‘and yet’ for things in which we find our very subjectivity at stake?), I do think that my particular affinity for the work of Kierkegaard is linked to the fact that when I first read him I thought “Wow, he understands Christianity like I do.” Moreover, my own focus on phenomenology is not entirely disconnected from my pentecostal orientation toward the lived dimension of existence, rather than merely a speculative reflection on existence. In this direction, I have written some essays that explicitly consider pentecostalism, but usually as a thought-experiment or a specific case study with which I have some familiarity (rather than an acceptable starting point for philosophy reflection itself). In fact, and I have never thought of this before, I wonder if my own “mashup” commitment to finding ways to reconceive the differences between analytic and Continental philosophy is related in some way to my frustration with always finding myself “between” discourses: too Christian for most postmodernists, but too postmodern for most Christians; too academic for the church, but too churchy for the academy; too analytic for Continentalists, but too Continental for analytics; too liberal for my Southern neighbors, but too Southern for my liberal friends, etc. Perhaps if I had been raised in a different religious tradition, this struggle wouldn’t be quite so prominent in my own religious life such that it would become a question for my professional work. I am not sure about this, but it seems possible.
Even if my religious identity is not a direct impact on my writing, I do think that my pentecostalism plays out more obviously in the way that I teach and speak. Philosophy should be done with energy. Just like pentecostal worship, philosophy is something that you can’t merely “observe,” but instead have to “get up and do.” Levinas says somewhere that you have to believe “with your whole body.” That seems right to me and so I guess that I would say that my pentecostal identity shows up in my philosophical work less as an assumed propositional content and more as an embodied way of life. Go all in. Dive deep.
As a final question, harkening back to where you said that contemporary philosophy of religion (continental and analytic) is sometimes insular, narrow, and cognitivist, and your remarks just now about philosophy being something that can be done in an embodied way of life, is there anything you can recommend about how philosophers of religion can achieve this? How do we avoid insularity, and get up and do philosophy?
The tendencies toward such insularity, narrowness, and cognitivism are fostered, I think, by the ease with which basic conceptions and terms are taken for granted within the discourse of philosophy of religion. There are two worries worth mentioning here. First, and less importantly, if you pick up the vast majority of philosophy of religion textbooks, it often seems like philosophy of religion is an exclusively “analytic” discourse. Second, and more importantly, it can quickly appear that it is obvious what “God,” “religion,” and “faith” all mean—namely, theism, Christianity, and assent to propositions that affirm the truth of theism. With these two worries in place, minimally finding ways to draw more effectively on the different philosophical approaches to thinking about religion would be a step in the right direction—hence my notion of “mashup philosophy of religion.” But, this is only a first step. It seems to me that, as I said before, finding ways to engage with the global and critical import of the academic study of religion in ways that allow our basic concepts to be contested, rather than given, would be the crucial second step toward allowing the philosophy of religion to be something that opens onto the possible truth found in embodied religious existence, rather than simply being a speculative discourse about the propositional truth of theism. As a pentecostal, but also as a phenomenologist, I think that both truths are worthy of philosophical investigation.
For my part, phenomenology proves very helpful for inviting such points of contact without, thereby, moving from philosophy to theology—which again is something I worry about for the sake of good philosophy and good theology. Yet, “phenomenology,” itself, quickly becomes a problematic term when one starts talking to scholars in critical theory of religion, for example, because of the lingering influence of such “phenomenologists of religion” as Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto, and Gerard van der Leeuw. For many in religious studies, it seems that to do phenomenology is to start from the assumptions of a sui generis religious essence as described in various ways by Eliade, Otto, and van der Leeuw. Yet, these thinkers are rarely mentioned in contemporary philosophy of religion occurring in light of “new” phenomenology. Indeed, often one might find that the very critical theorist of religion who is dismissing “phenomenology” does so while drawing on the deconstructive phenomenology of Derrida and referencing the phenomenological ethics of Levinas, etc., but without noting that there are two different “traditions” operative here that both move under the name “phenomenology.” So, in order to overcome disciplinary insularity, it is crucial that philosophers be willing to be humble about the terms and traditions that can so frequently be taken for granted when speaking only with others in one’s community. The point is to see if questions that get ignored or quickly answered within a particular disciplinary (or even sub-disciplinary) community might press again as questions if one starts with different assumptions.
Fundamental concepts like “God,” “religion,” and “faith,” should be viewed as importantly contested sites of historical decisions that occur within discourse, rather than immediately being understood as reflections of philosophical Truth (capital-T) by which discourse can then be guided. The point, though, is to see such engagement as valuable not due to a commitment to diversity for its own sake, but due to a commitment to truth-seeking itself. When something gets taken as obvious, it is no longer questioned. As Heidegger and David Foster Wallace both note so well, it is difficult to be open to reality as being “more than it seems” if we already think that we have it figured out. That said, I recognize that few philosophers of religion would say that they have reality all figured out, and many good analyses of the role of mystery in religion have demonstrated this fact. Yet, often our assumptions betray unacknowledged historical decisions about what might be legitimately considered otherwise.
Look, I am a Christian (or at least, in the Kierkegaardian sense, I am trying to become one), but I think I understand Christianity better when I see how Christianity is understood by those who do not identify as such. The same is true as a philosopher: as I seek truth, I should be maximally interested in how truth might be understood otherwise if different starting points were in play, and if different notions of evidence were operative, etc. This does not mean that philosophers should be theologians, or sociologists, or historians, or critical theorists of religion, but it does mean that work in the philosophy of religion should be aware of the fact that theism, Christianity, and propositional assent are reflective of a very specific approach to the notion of God, religion, and faith. This approach might be true, it might be good, and it might be the best way forward, but its truth, its goodness, and its utility are not obvious and philosophers would do well to open themselves more explicitly to this fact.
Ultimately, then, in order to “get up and do philosophy,” the first thing to do is to get up! Analytic philosophers and Continental philosophers should read each other. Philosophers of religion should see religious studies as a crucial resource while realizing that scientific conceptions of evidence are not the only ones available. In other words, lived experience and embodiment should change the way that we make sense of what we do today as philosophers, even if it doesn’t necessarily change what has historically counted as philosophy (hence my earlier point about the importance of disciplinary centers). My hope is that by attending to this historical aspect of all philosophical inquiry, we philosophers can become more responsive to the lived communities for whom the idea of “religion” is much more than a philosophical concept, and more responsible to the other conversation partners who are also interested in being similarly attentive, but from different disciplinary perspectives.
Philosophy of religion does not need to become something other than philosophy; it just needs to be more careful about thinking through what “religion” can mean, in order to be better at doing whatever “philosophy” does mean (at least for us, here and now).