Friday, April 15, 2011

back to the research, and what not...

So, a couple people have asked me to write up a brief overview of the PCR4 conference that I attended last week. That follows this quick update:

I am back in the UK, and had a good time in Syracuse. Upon my return, I began a part-time job as a tutor for A-levels here in Oxford. Basically, this means helping students who are preparing for the major tests they have to take before being accepted into a British university. I've only done this for a few days now, but so far it seems like a great position. And, since it's part-time, I don't have to worry about it taking away from my own research/study time. At least, that's the idea. :-) I have also been hired to teach philosophy for a summer school course at Oxford Royale Academy, so that should be another good opportunity.

Oh, also, my first publication is now available online, ahead of its upcoming publication in print. It's in The Heythrop Journal. For the few of you who might have access to Wiley-Blackwell online journals, here is the link:

Ok, now, as for the conference...

I actually enjoyed the PCR4 conference quite a bit. Sorry, that stands for the 4th annual Postmodernism, Culture, and Religion Conference. The theme was "The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion," and, as you can probably guess, most of the papers were focused upon the relationship between philosophy and religion. That leads to some interesting issues which I won't get into right now. But, anyway...

I was actually surprised by how many people attended the conference. John Caputo, who has been in charge of the conferences since their inception (I believe), has done a great job of promoting them. I would estimate their were about 150 people there, from all over the world. Most were either teachers or graduate students in philosophy departments, but there were also some from religious studies and theology departments. I would venture to say that the 'religious studies' department at Syracuse is really also a Continental philosophy department, but that's for another post. About 80 people presented papers or gave keynote speeches.

To give you an idea of the level of philosophical specificity at the conference, here are a few of the session titles: "Engaging Deleuze and Immanence," "Vattimo and Transformative Temporality," "Agamben and Ecstatic Speech," "Focus on Francois Laruelle's 'Future Christ'," "Countersigning Derrida", etc. Honestly, there were a lot of sessions dealing with topics about which I knew very little. In some ways that was good, because I could learn about ideas and themes with which I have little experience, but on the other hand, there is only so much you can grasp when listening to a 30-minute paper about an unfamiliar topic. Still, there were quite a few presentations I found interesting, and it was fun to attend the session on Kierkegaard.

I think what stood out was the amount of interest in what might be called a "New Materialism", that is, a return to radical views of immanence, and theological engagement from that angle. Essentially, this approach does not want to eliminate religion or faith, and even finds value in it. But, it also seeks to eliminate all talk of transcendence and look for the purely immanent 'radical core' of faith, taking that to be a human phenomenon which has merit both anthropologically and philosophically. In other words, there was a lot of talk about how (for example) the Christian God is dead, but there is still a lot of good stuff to learn from the Christian faith. It's just, you know, not the stuff about Jesus' miracles or life after death and what not.

A couple of us were chatting about this toward the end of conference, and we came to the conclusion that this seems rather unsatisfactory, not only from the perspective of a believer, but even from a purely conceptual standpoint. It's like the trend now (well, it's just a repeated trend throughout the history of thought) is to tear out all the 'supernatural' content of religious faith, and look at it from a purely materialist angle.

The problem here is that it's difficult to see how whatever theology is saved in this paradigm is anything truly THEOLOGICAL. God has been removed, and the core of religious faith has been replaced with speculative philosophical ideas. This may provide interesting essays in a conference setting, but what good does it do for people and the ways they live their lives? Most of these approaches end up with an ethical praxis that falls somewhere between pragmatism and outright anarchy. It's difficult to know why we need so many complex philosophical theories if all they give us is the same old questions with regard to application.

Theology, at least as far as I'm concerned, matters because it offers the hope of another option. Maybe that option sounds like a fantasy to unbelievers, but at least it's an option. Too many of the current trends in Continental philosophy seem to circle back around and repeat old ideas. (One possible exception seems to be Laruelle's view that, if I'm understanding correctly, heresy is actually necessary for theology, since without it we would not be able to develop the boundaries of faith. So we should be thankful for heretics! Hmmm.)

Anyway, I had a good time attending the conference, and I learned more about various philosophers, but in the end I didn't take away anything ground-breaking. So, that's that.


Anthony Paul Smith said...

I think this is a rather unfair assessment and caricature of those of us who work on religion from a immanental posture. Perhaps we'll chat more about this in Oxford this week, but it is frankly too simplistic to write off these approaches as being antithetical to actual practices of people in the pews (this is the question that Westphal used to kill the roundtable before it even began!). My response would simply be, "Yeah, and?" Furthermore, it suggests these people, many of whom have devoted decades to this, haven't thought of rather simplistic rebuttals to their position.

One question, and I mean it in all respect, why attend a philosophy of religion conference and expect to hear (Christian) theology?

Geoff said...

Hey Anthony,

Sorry for the delay in responding. I'm not always prompt.

I take your point about attending a POR conference as a theologian, but I thought I noticed that there were also (perhaps because of Caputo's reputation) a lot of people at PCR4 who seemed to be committed to Christian theology in some form. So, it just made me wonder how the two are supposed to fit together.

I take it that as a Christian theologian my job is to responsibly examine, from as many angles as possible, ideas about God, faith, etc. and what they might mean, not only theoretically, but practically. I don't know, but I think you might say the same as a philosopher?

I guess it may have come across rather crudely, but I really am asking the questions because I'm not sure of the answers: What can a purely immanental view of God offer to theology? What can it offer to people 'in the pews'?

I won't lump you in with this approach, but one of the sessions I attended at PCR4 mentioned the need for a 'return to death-of-God theology'. In further discussion, one of the speakers essentially argued that what is needed is for Christianity to fully embrace that the transcendent God completely and finally died in Jesus Christ. So, now we have a new situation in which we, as humans, are called to enact the same love out of which God died for us.

Not only does such a view seem both philosophically and theologically incoherent to me, but it also doesn't seem to offer much in the way of actual content for people of faith. If God died because God loved us so much, and the world we live in is the result, I see no reason why anyone would bother to believe at all.

Maybe that's the point, but then why should anyone care to be loving or sacrificial either? I mean, if God died and it didn't change things, why should I assume my love or death will affect anything? If that's the route we're taking, let's just all become pragmatists and quit pretending belief matters.

Perhaps this is naive on my part. If so, I would like to hear why. But from what I heard at the conference, and with Caputo's (IMO) lame response to the new realist and immanental critiques in POR, I didn't leave with much of a positive impression. But, I'm open to having my mind changed!