Philosophers and their religious practices: Part 23, Goodness, Beauty, and Asceticism
July 28, 2016 — 10:55

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 0

This is the twenty-third 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 these links for links for parts 12345678910111213,  141516171819, 2021 and 22

This interview is with Jeremiah Carey, PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.

Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?

I’m a graduate student in philosophy at UC Berkeley.  I’ll be going on the job market in the fall and graduating in the spring, so I’m eagerly (and anxiously) waiting to see what the future holds.  My philosophical interests are broad and mostly ethical – I want to know how to live and whatever is relevant to knowing that – but my main research has centered on issues in moral psychology.  I pitch my dissertation as a defense of a contemporary analogue of Plato’s tripartite theory of soul. Basically, I argue that in order to make sense of weakness of will, we have to think of ourselves as having multiple “sources” of motivation, which I identify as reason, desire, and the will. A big chunk (over half) is about how to understand desire and its relation to reasons for action.  I’m also interested in normative issues in moral psychology and related topics in virtue ethics and free will/moral responsibility.  I’ve found myself attracted more to ancient approaches to these questions than modern ones, which has led to secondary interests in ancient philosophy, and, more recently, Asian philosophy.

I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. I converted to Orthodoxy fairly recently, though I grew up in church, almost quite literally – when I was young my father was a pentecostal preacher and we lived for awhile in an apartment built above the sanctuary. The denomination I grew up in was un-orthodox (denying the doctrine of the Trinity), and at least at that time quite fundamentalist and anti-intellectual.  In fact, my first exposure to philosophy came from my dad’s struggle against the anti-intellectualism of his own church.  (I remember him trying once, without much success, to give us family lessons on common fallacies. A more lasting impression was made when he gave me to read, as a pre-teen, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and emphasized Douglass’ discovery of the link between slavery, on the one hand, and a failure to ask questions and to think deeply, on the other.)  My family left that church while I was in middle school and remained non-denominationally affiliated for the rest of my childhood (my dad quit pastoring, went back to school and became a medical doctor).  Since then I’ve always been, more or less half-heartedly, connected to one church or another, until I discovered the Orthodox church early in my graduate career.

I’ve always been somewhat ill at ease with my faith.  I seem to be the only person in my immediate or extended family who is, I’m afraid, basically immune to religious experience.  I think there are good arguments for theism in general and Christianity in particular, but I don’t find them rationally compelling.  So while Truth is undoubtedly an important issue, my primary draw towards religion is based more on those other transcendentals, Goodness and Beauty.  I want to be good, and I want to recognize and love the beautiful, as well as to believe the true.  Orthodoxy holds out for me the hope of those things more than anything else I’ve encountered.

Could you tell me how Orthodoxy can help you draw closer to Goodness and Beauty?

Ok, starting with beauty.  Anyone who has been to an Orthodox liturgy knows that we take beauty seriously, though of course some churches succeed better than others.  In many of the bigger churches, there are icons (traditionally stylized religious paintings) wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.  Candles, representing prayers of the people, are burning in several places. The texts are ancient and deep and almost entirely chanted. There is pageantry and incense and varying degrees of lay participation – I’d say that the average person crosses themselves at least a dozen times during each liturgy, in addition to venerating the icons, lighting candles, listening, and singing along.  It all culminates in Communion, consuming the sanctified bread and wine out of a common cup.  There is not a single sense that is not appealed to and incorporated. At the same time, the liturgy doesn’t coddle its participants, and I, at least, often find my mind wandering.  So it’s also a sort of training ground for getting past the “vague haze of private anxiety and fantasy” that Iris Murdoch identified as the chief enemy of both art and morality.

I also find certain aspects of the theology very beautiful.  The conception of God is not as some discrete being located somewhere inside or outside of the universe, but as the transcendent source of being itself, identical with the Good and the Beautiful, only by participation in which all else exists.  In a wonderful passage, for example, St Gregory Palamas says that God is “the Being of all beings, the Form that is in all forms as the Author of form, the Wisdom of the wise and, simply, the All of all things.” Several saints say that God is both inside and outside of everything, and St Dionysius says that “Beauty is the source of all things” and that “there is nothing that does not have a share in Beauty-and-Goodness”.  God is also, of course, taken somehow to be a loving communion of three Persons. All of these claims have, I think, startling ethical implications.  The universe must be seen as pervaded by God and shining with his Glory.  Every person must be seen as an incarnate icon of Beauty itself.  The fundamental feature, cause, and end of all existence is the loving communion of persons in relationship.  Lots of people may fail to see how these claims could be true, or how exactly to understand them, but I’d hope that most can see their beauty. (To be fair, other forms of Christianity make similar claims, but they really came alive for me in Orthodoxy.)

Goodness has already come up a bit, in a very abstract way. But what I’ve found so refreshing (and challenging) is the very practical and down-to-earth approach to spiritual life that exists alongside the more mystical elements in Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy is one of the few traditions that is not afraid of calling itself ascetic.  We moderns associate all sorts of extremes with asceticism, but the Greek word ascesis just means training or exercise.  Real asceticism is nothing other than the recognition that being good at anything, including being a good human being, requires practice, self-discipline, and occasionally doing without.  Orthodox spirituality connects many of our ethical problems with the “passions” (there are interesting parallels here with Stoicism and Buddhism, and even Confucianism).  In the eastern Christian tradition, on my reading, the main problem with the passions is that they involve a sort of self-centered blindness to the value and reality of anything outside of ourselves.  St Maximus the Confessor, for example, says that inordinate self-love is the root of the three primary passions of pride, greed, and lust for pleasure, which in turn lead to all the rest.

Part of being Orthodox is being expected to participate in many disciplines part of whose aim is to help redirect or remove these negative passions.  For example, we fast for about half the year, all told, where fasting typically involves approximating a vegan diet.  We follow a calendar with several periods of increased almsgiving and increased frequency of services.  We are expected to regularly take stock of our lives and confess our failures. Many keep a daily prayer rule and regularly read the works or lives of great saints.  As I said above, the liturgy itself is a training ground. Again, I don’t think these things are entirely unique to Orthodoxy, though they are somewhat unique among major forms of Christianity, and no doubt the majority of practitioners (including myself) fail to live up to the expectations.  But the fact that there are such expectations, that one feels oneself as part of a common ethical and religious struggle that has been going on for millennia, and the way it all fits together with an existentially satisfying view of the world – these are the things that drew and continue to draw me to Orthodoxy.


Of these practices you mention, the beautiful liturgy, the taking stock of one’s lives and confessing failures, the fasting, and other things: Do you think these have any philosophical significance, and if so, what might that be?

Good question! There are several things that might be meant by “philosophical significance”. Pierre Hadot argued that originally philosophy was understood as a way of life, that what now seems to constitute philosophy, rational argumentation about certain questions, originally served only as part of the formation of a philosopher.  For him, philosophy has always involved certain practices which he himself calls “spiritual exercises”.  His argument seems to me strained at certain points, but it certainly rings true for the conception of philosophy that emerged by Hellenistic times, and it was this conception of philosophy that early Christian thinkers appropriated to describe what they thought of as involved in a good life.  So the practices I mentioned are definitely of philosophical significance for me, insofar as they in part constitute what it is for me to aspire to the label of philosopher within my tradition.

They also serve as interesting objects of philosophical investigation.  I don’t think confession or fasting have received much mainstream attention (though there are some things out there), but several philosophers have begun thinking about liturgy. Jamie Smith has a series of books arguing for the importance of liturgy based on what he sees as an over-intellectualized theory of action and spiritual formation on the part especially of evangelical institutions.  (His book Desiring the Kingdom was actually instrumental in my conversion to Orthodoxy.) From a Reformed perspective, Nicholas Wolterstorff has written several things on liturgy, and Terence Cuneo, whom you interviewed earlier, has just come out with a book, Ritualized Faith, on several of the aspects of the Orthodox liturgy I mentioned.

More broadly, I think those ethical views mentioned above fundamentally concerned with the “passions” (Stoicism, Buddhism, Confucianism, eastern Christianity), and thus involving various rituals or disciplines aimed at correcting them, have not gotten enough widespread philosophical attention but are increasingly relevant.  First, they are relevant at a sort of popular level with the increase of interest in Asian religions and in those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious”. Somewhat surprisingly, there are basically no philosophical treatments out there of the concept of spirituality, or of the ethical role of meditation, or of mindfulness, which I think is an important aspect of all the traditions mentioned.

They are also, I think, relevant for some of the recent philosophical literature that grapples with empirical findings in social psychology.  For example, there is a growing interest in implicit bias, what it shows, and how it can be corrected. Various things have been found to help reduce implicit bias, like controlling certain emotions (anger and disgust exacerbate bias), implementation intentions (rehearsing ahead of time how one will react in difficult situations), and evaluative priming (among other things, reminding oneself of one’s ethical commitments). These are all strikingly similar, if not identical, to some of the techniques advocated by ancient Stoics (and the early Christians as well, who probably got them from the Stoics). Unfortunately, a lot of these interventions have also been found to have only short-term effects on reducing biases, which has led some to despair of our ability to take individual responsibility for them.  One appealing thing about these ancient approaches is that their advocates would not find this surprising, since they saw the pursuit of virtue as a difficult lifelong pursuit.  For example, Epictetus said “it isn’t easy for a person to arrive at a firm judgment unless, day after day, he states and hears the same principles, and at the same time applies them to his life.” Confucius famously claimed in his old age that although he “set his heart on learning” at age 15, “took his stand” at 30, and was “without doubts” by 40, it wasn’t until he was 70 that he could “follow his heart’s desire without overstepping the line”. This may seem a bit depressing, but it helps us to be humble and not give up hope – I actually think it is harmful to ethical development (as it is to developing any skill) if we are not realistic about the difficulties involved. So what I think is being increasingly shown is that if we really care about being good in difficult times and with increased knowledge of the complexities of our inner lives, we need to return to a healthily ascetic approach, to an ethics of mindful inner transformation.


As a graduate student in philosophy, who is going on the job market this fall, could you offer some reflections on how easy or hard it might be for professional philosophers to strive to philosophy as a way of life? Or to cultivate virtues?

This is a difficult question.  I haven’t thought about it as much as I probably should, in part because so much of my desire is just to get to that next stage, so that’s it’s hard to see beyond it.  There are some common grievances about analytic philosophy, however, that I think have some bite – that it is overly specialized, isolated, and lacking in important popularizers or public intellectuals.  I do think specialization is important, and there are several counterexamples to these complaints, but I also think that all philosophers should have at least some broad and systematic interests, as well as a respect for philosophy’s past and the ways that it might help to illuminate issues in other disciplines or popular culture.  These won’t be primary concerns for most philosophers, and no one can do everything, but I think it’s something we all should think about from time to time, and that doing so is part of the vocation of a philosopher.

I don’t have enough first-hand experience of what it’s like to be a Real Professional Philosopher to know all of the ethical difficulties involved, but I imagine finding a proper balance in one’s life, between one’s various academic and non-academic duties, to be among the most difficult.  I also know that no one easily escapes that passion of egotism which St Maximus singled out as the source of all the rest, and that academia brings out this passion in all sorts of distinctive ways.  It is far too easy, especially with the increasing competitiveness of the field, to place one’s sense of worth in which schools one went to, or how much one has published, or where one gets a job, or even if one gets a job. Perhaps obviously, it is that last one that troubles me most.  Philosophy as a way of life prohibits (or ought to prohibit) me from thinking of becoming a professional philosopher as essential to my virtue or vocation.  But what does it mean to practice philosophy as a way of life if one isn’t a “real” philosopher? I suppose I’ll have to answer that if and when I get to it. I hope I won’t have to.



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