This is the twenty-first 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, 18, 19 and 20. 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 Kevin Timpe, who will be the Jellema Chair of Christian Philosophy starting this fall.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I’m actually in transition this summer. We’re in the process of moving to Grand Rapids, MI where I’ll be the W. H. Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy at Calvin College starting this coming fall. I just finished my seventh year at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, and before that I taught for six years at the University of San Diego in southern California. As you can tell from this, I’ve been at a number of fairly different Christian universities over the course of my career.
I’m joked a few times that I’ve gone from teaching in a Catholic school to a Wesleyan school and now to a Reformed school without substantively changing my philosophical or religious views, but I actually think there’s a fair bit of truth in that description. I have a strong affinity for what my friend and frequent co-author Tim Pawl calls ‘conciliar Christianity’. I lean toward the medievals (more so than toward modern or postmodern theologians) in a lot of my theological views, which helps explain why I have many Catholic sympathies. A few of my papers have drawn heavily on parts of Augustine’s and Aquinas’s thought. Some of my views are a little unusual for a Protestant, such as my thinking that purgatory fits very nicely with what I think about character formation and a recent paper of mine exploring a particular understanding of limbo. Last year for a paper on grace, I read a fair bit of Maximus the Confessor and would love to engage his thought more in the coming years.
In terms of research, most of my early work focused on issues relating to the metaphysics of free will and various issues in the philosophy of religion. At the University of San Diego, I taught a general-education ethics course entitled “Virtues and Vices” that got me thinking more about virtue ethics, particularly about the connections between our actions and our moral character. Though initially primarily a teaching interest, I came to write some on moral character and virtue, and eventually edited a collection (with Craig Boyd) entitled Virtues and Their Vices (OUP, 2014). A little over a year ago, I started a new research project on philosophy of disability, largely as the result of having a disabled child and having to do some significant advocating for him once he entered elementary school. Though my other interests remain, I think that disability (including how it intersects with agency) will be the primary focus of my research for the next few years.
Could you tell me something about your religious practices (things such as going to church, prayer etc)? From what I have gathered, in churches, there seems to be varying forms of accommodation for people with disabilities. Does having a disabled child influence your experience of religious practices?
I suspect that my set of religious practices isn’t all that unusual for most Christians. We attend church weekly, and have been fairly involved there. I co-taught a Sunday school class with a colleague who taught with me at Northwest Nazarene University in the theology department for about four and a half years. Our class sometimes was as large as 60, and the ages of members ranged from college students to 80 year olds. It was a great mix of people.
As I suspect is true for many philosophers, I’m inclined toward more liturgical worship, and the service that we attend reflects that. Given my interest in virtue ethics and character formation, this probably isn’t too surprising. I find that the liturgy is historically constructed in such a way as to have explicitly formative dimensions. For much of the last four years, a number of colleagues and I would get together once a week to say the Daily Office midweek as well. For us, a major reason was to force us to slow down from the demands of our days. Professional and family busyness creeps in all too easy.
The fact that the Daily Office includes confession was also important to us. Regular and public confession, I think, contributes to a better sense of one’s own moral dependence on others, protects against pride, and reinforces the social or corporate nature of the moral and liturgical life. I wish the church I attend took confession more seriously. But it does focus corporate worship each week on the Eucharist, which is really important for my religious life. I find that the Eucharist is one of the most meaningful—it not the most meaningful—religious practices that I’ engaged in, and it’s had a large impact on my faith. (I address some of the ways that this is in a paper of mine, “Trust, Silence, and Liturgical Acts.” It’s the most autobiographical paper I’ve written. The example that runs throughout the paper involved Cooper and Lee is really about my son and I, though using our middle names. There, I try to argue that participation in the liturgical life of the Church—particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist—can provide a basis for maintaining one’s trust if God even in the face of a certain kind of apparent Divine silence regarding suffering. A copy of that paper can be found here.
I find prayer hard. Well, let me qualify that. I find petitionary prayer difficult, even though I know it’s commanded within Christianity. Other forms of prayer have played a more robust role in Christian practice in the past than they do for much contemporary Christianity, and for me these kinds of prayer come much more easily. Prayers of confession, as indicated earlier, and prayers of thanksgiving too. I find myself also very drawn to prayers of lament, and recently wrote a paper on the nature of lament.
I think that a lot of churches do a really bad job welcoming and including individuals with disabilities. This is unfortunate in the least and a case can be made that it’s contrary to the Gospel. The Church is for the marginalized, the oppressed, the otherwise unwelcome. Given that society doesn’t always do a good job of welcoming those with disabilities, one would hope that the Church would. But I think it often does even worse than society. I’ve talked to a number of adults with disabilities that have had horrible experiences at churches.
My own experiences, however, primarily involve my son and other children with disabilities. Our son’s disabilities didn’t have a large impact on our starting to attend the church we currently attend. He was less than 2 when we started going there. But how they have treated him and have been willing to work to improve on this score has been a significant reason that we’ve stayed. It helps that the children’s pastor has a child with disabilities, even though they’re very different than our son’s. And the church has recently added a professional therapist to their staff to help; the therapist has worked with our son for years and is fantastic. The fact that the congregation is willing to do this says a lot about the place. Our experience there hasn’t been perfect, but on the whole it’s been good. And they’re willing to listen when we and others try and help improve things. (Going to other churches with young children—say when we’re traveling—is often hard. But disability can make it exponentially more difficult.) There are some faculty at Calvin that have developed a number of resources for churches in this regard, and I look forward to getting to know them once I’m there.
In the paper you linked to, you provide an account of how the Liturgy, and specifically, the Eucharist, believers can augment their union with God and find a response of God. Could you tell me something about your recent work on prayers of lament and the nature of lament?
The paper on lament is part of a larger project in Analytic Theology that I was asked to participate in. Like many projects in Analytic Theology, this project aims to bring together philosophers, theological, biblical scholars, and others to see how our various work and methodology can cross-pollinate, learn from, and contribute to the projects of others in different disciplines. Unlike many other projects in Analytic Theology, this project (“Prayer, Love, and Human Nature: Analytic Theology for Theological Formation” at Fuller Theological Seminary) explicitly seeks to engage not only academics but also pastors and other church leaders. Lament is one kind of prayer that I think is undervalued in many churches (in the paper, I say that it’s been “domesticated”), and I hope that exploring its nature and role can serve as a corrective.
The first part of the paper looks at the nature of lament, both in general and within Scripture (particular the Psalms). Very little of that part of the paper is novel, but I try to summarize the work of some leading biblical scholars such as Rebekah Eklund, Brent Strawn, and Walter Brueggemann. I then characterize lament as follows (insofar as I don’t think there are necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for lament, this characterization is somewhat imprecise):
Lament is an impassioned–a lived and live–prayer or cry, in the face of what is perceived to be injustice or other wrongness in the world, aimed at God and from within a particular communal understanding of God’s nature and promise to individuals; in which the petitioner feels confident enough to raise her concerns and even perceived in-action on God’s part and yet does so within the context of the belief that God is, in fact, faithful.
Lament usually ends in an affirmation of trust and faith in God, but that’s not always the case. One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 88, in which the Psalmist begs for God’s presence but is met with silence and wrath and despair. It ends “darkness is my only companion.” I recently read a wonderful book titled with this phrase about mental illness in the Church. (To connect with an earlier issue in the interview, I think that how many churches respond to mental illness is just as problematic, and in many of the same ways, as how they respond to disability.)
Returning to the paper you asked about, I then explore the communal nature of lament and how communities can be worse off for the loss of lament. Lament legitimizes and empowers the margianalized. Lament can also raise important but often suppressed questions of social access and social power. Lament, like the emotion of anger, can also motivate action. I then suggest that there might be a virtue (or virtues) which aims at lamenting well.
Given your personal work on religious practices, such as the Eucharist and prayer, in philosophy of religion, and the recent work of others, what do you think philosophy of religion has gained by paying more attention to practice? Are there any aspects of religious practice you think are at present under explored in philosophy of religion?
That’s a great question, and I’m afraid I don’t have more than just a tentative answer. I think there’s been some great recent work on religious practices–Terence Cuneo’s Ritualized Faith: Essays on the Philosophy of Liturgy, Nick Wolterstorff’s The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology, and Bruce Ellis Benson’s Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship come immediately to mind.
But I think that this is an aspect of philosophy of religion that is less developed than a lot of others. As it continues to develop, reflection on lived religious experience can help counterbalance the overly intellectualized nature of that I think a fair bit of philosophy of religion takes. (I say this all too aware that I’m one who over intellectualizing in just this way myself.) I’d love to see people work on, for instance, confession and how it relates to philosophical discussions of forgiveness and reconciliation.
I think that further work on religious practices could also help diversity philosophy of religion in a number of ways. Philosophy of religion, I think even more than philosophy in general, tends to be male-dominated and western-centric and that further work on religious practices could expand its basis. Christina Van Dyke, for instance, has a research project going on focusing on women mystics in the medieval period. I would love to see an increase in non-western philosophy of religion (or, at least an increase in exposure with it—it is possible that the kind of work that I’d like to see is being done but that it’s not very widely known). I can imagine really interesting work relating Hindu ashramas to virtue ethics, for instance.