Friday, May 31, 2013

Stickhandling Tradition: Freedom and Constraint in Religious Life

      by Ron Kuipers

Freedom is constraint by norms (rules). This definition of freedom seems at first to fly in the face of modern notions of liberty, which are inherently negative. Freedom in this latter sense is freedom from rules. Rules are fetters to be escaped. As many philosophers have pointed out (and Jeffrey Stout does a great job of this in Democracy and Tradition), this negative conception of liberty occludes the productive role played by rules, the way normative constraints (rules) in fact create the space in which we are free to do anything at all. Very rare is the person who, without any lessons or other form of apprenticeship, can simply walk up to a piano or pick up a guitar and give a virtuoso performance. In this sense, I am not free to play the guitar simply because nothing prevents me from picking one up. Let’s look at another example from the world of sport: Obviously, one is not free to play hockey until one learns how to play hockey. But such learning is a form of apprenticeship to the rules and norms that guide and determine what it means to play hockey, and to do so skilfully. The initiate learns these rules and skills from authoritative predecessors (coaches), who have the authority (competence) to recognize when the initiate has successfully mastered these various skills, including the authority to determine to what extent she has done so. Learning this sport, then, involves seeking recognition for one’s performance; in particular one seeks recognition from the authoritative predecessors (coaches) to which one has apprenticed oneself. In this situation, the coach is the judge, and so decides when the player’s performance has reached a level of exemplarity, when it becomes an example of “going on in the same way” (to crib a phrase from Wittgenstein) as all the previous performances that set the precedents for this judgment.

If we think of hockey in this way, we can think of it as a tradition of virtue or excellence. Something excellent worth passing along (in this case, skill at playing hockey) is kept (in the sense of guarded and protected) by authoritative practitioners who have the responsibility to inculcate this skill in the lives of the initiates in their charge, and who also have the authority (in the sense of competence) to judge (recognize) when it has been so inculcated. It is important for us to recognize that without such guardianship, virtues and excellences may be lost. Nobody knows how to make a Stradivarius anymore. Knowledge does not grow on trees (as Barry Allen is fond of saying).

At the same time, initiates themselves are not simply (or at least they will not ever remain) mere passive receptacles for this prized knowledge or skill. They are themselves agent participants in this pattern of recognition. The point to grasp here is that any tradition of excellence has an ongoing history of donation and reception through which the norms that are passed along and inculcated are themselves subject to modification in their very transmission. The theologian Kevin Hector thus describes such traditions as embodying a “normative trajectory,” a trajectory that remains dynamic so long as the tradition remains alive. That is, every time the practice of an initiate receives recognition from competent authorities as “going on in the same way,” the tradition’s normative trajectory is modified a little bit. It now includes more examples of what it means to go on in the same way than it did before; and maybe, in some special cases, a particular novel performance even has the ability to modify significantly what the authorities think it means to go on in the same way.

One clearly sees such modification in the case of the former initiate who has become a virtuoso. In this case especially, we clearly see the ‘dialectical’ relationship between learning a skill and the evolution of normative constraints. The initiate learns the skill by abiding by the constraints, yet once the skill is mastered (once virtuosity is achieved) some constraints (but not all, and definitely not all at once) become available for modification in the practice itself. To continue with the hockey example: Wayne Gretzky “changed the way we play hockey.” From his position of virtuosity or mastery, he exploited areas of the ice that were formerly considered neutral (think of his “office” behind the net), and transformed them into dangerous areas in which to leave him unmarked. Virtuoso performances like Gretzky’s, even as they are constrained by the norms governing the sport of hockey, have a specific novelty and creativity to them, one might even say an “unpredictability.” (Keep in mind that “constraint by norms” still conditions the possibility of even such groundbreaking performance as Gretzky’s). So, while Gretzky’s transformative virtuoso hockey performances may have been unpredictable in prospect, those with authority in the sport could still recognize, in retrospect, that not only did they “go on in the same way,” but they did so in exemplary fashion. Gretzky thus became a model for others of how to play the sport, and opened up new possibilities for doing so. He changed the way the game is played, even if it remains recognizably the same game.

A living tradition, then, if it really cares for excellence (virtue), will not only be concerned to preserve continuity (going on in the same way), but will also be concerned to make space for novel and unpredictable performances that are still carried out in its spirit, guided by its ongoing normative trajectory (Gretzky was still trying to score goals and win hockey games; Christians are still trying to embody God’s love made manifest in Christ). On the account of the relationship between freedom and fealty to tradition being put forward here, a tradition exists both to bring forward a past spirit, and also to allow that spirit to be breathed anew into a different present, and thus open up possibilities for a transformed future. When traditions refuse to allow generous scope for their practitioners to experiment with novel, unpredictable forms of “going on in the same way,” when they refuse to recognize the (oftentimes small, but real) contribution that initiates make to the evolution of their tradition’s normative trajectory, they become authoritarian, and they kill the dynamism and sense of possibility that is crucial for any living tradition to maintain and embody. “Keepers” of authoritarian tradition (for they are really destroyers of it as a tradition of excellence) are like the obtuse coach who orders Gretzky not to set up camp behind the net because “hockey isn’t played that way.” Such a coach won’t last long, at least not if those with authority in the sport continue to concern themselves with its ability to achieve ever new forms of excellence. In the same way, authoritarian traditions obsess about their roots and become ignorant and unconcerned about the ongoing life of the tree they are meant to stabilize and nourish; such traditions contract archive fever, wither, and die. We can do greater things than Christ (John 14:12).

Ron Kuipers is the Director of the CPRSE and Associate Professor in the Philosophy of Religion at ICS.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Conversation and Closed Beliefs

Suggesting a way to stabilize the volatile mixture of religion and politics in public, Jeffrey Stout, in his book Democracy and Tradition, calls for “conversation” as a guiding principle in social and political life:

“By [conversation] I mean an exchange of views in which the respective parties express their premises in as much detail as they see fit and in whatever idiom they wish, try to make sense of each other’s perspectives, and expose their own commitments to the possibility of criticism” (Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 10-11).

If we can finally get everyone involved in the conversation, Stout says, maybe we have a shot at securing a peaceful pluralistic and democratic society. In response to Richard Rorty’s claim that religion is a conversation stopper and should therefore be banished from public life altogether (Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 168-174), Stout firmly replies that it belongs in the public sphere as a legitimate voice that must be taken seriously. However, for belief holders, there is also a responsibility to “expose their own commitments to the possibility of criticism.” Conversation partners need to meet each other halfway.

In principle, this sounds like a beautiful path to a brighter future. But in reality, our society is full of people (including ourselves more often than we’d like to admit) whose views are not open to critique from others or even themselves and cannot provide reasons for their commitments. With surprising insight, one of the Urban Dictionary’s ( definitions of “fundamentalist” rings true but also sounds a little too familiar:

“2. Fundamentalist: Person so desperate to be able to say things like "There can be no compromise!" and think things like "I am right and everyone else is wrong!" that they give up all critical thinking, accept literally the parts of a holy book that support their prejudices and take an unquestioning stance on one interpretation of a religion. They won't, of course, admit that it's only an interpretation; it's the ONE AND ONLY TRUTH. They often like to write words like TRUTH in BLOCK CAPITALS.”

How often do I hold a position that I think is unquestionably the TRUTH? If we go with this insightful but tongue-in-cheek definition, fundamentalists are found in all fields, not just religion, and most, if not all, of us have just a little fundamentalist in us. But this is exactly what Richard Rorty wants to get rid of in public life, because once you come up against the point where your conversation partner is no longer willing to budge, conversation reaches a deadlock. So the question remains: how can conversation be a guiding principle for public life when a portion of the population isn’t even open to discussion because of their beliefs?

Stout’s proposal to include religion in conversation as we “try to make sense of each other’s perspectives,” sounds like a productive way forward, but I think it needs to be qualified with an acknowledgement of the deep complexity of religion and religious belief. Religion, for many people, is not a compartment partitioned off from all others; it informs and is informed by all of life, and few hold their religious convictions for only reasons of religious piety. Much of the difficulty and complexity in politics and even interpersonal relationships seems to arise out of this: we often do not understand the reasons for our own beliefs well enough to think critically about them. And if we do understand them, some beliefs are simply off limits from critical inquiry.

I think a distinction should be made here between “open” and “closed” approaches to religious commitments. Closed beliefs are those that are either inaccessible to critical inquiry or consciously off limits to criticism. In light of this distinction, Richard Rorty’s critique of religion in the public sphere holds consistent, as long as it is limited to closed religious beliefs. Understood in this way, of course closed religious beliefs are conversation stoppers; they are by definition rational impasses. The question remains, however, whether or not it is fair to say that closed religious beliefs, which many (if not all) of us hold to some extent, simply have no place in politics and public life.

Stout’s analysis, similar to Rorty’s (with this clarification), eloquently addresses how to introduce open religion to politics, or, alternatively, it suggests the need to make religion open to critical conversation; if you hold closed religious commitments, you need to open them up to the “possibility of criticism.” For closed believers, this is a legitimate cause for concern. Once beliefs are opened up, it is impossible to guard against the possibility of erosion. I suspect Rorty, and maybe Stout as well, would call this a good thing because of the way it might widen, nuance or modify our beliefs. But the constant flow of conversation can also carve canyons in our commitments so that we hold less and less strongly to them the more critical we become.

But this is just not a viable option for all religious people; some beliefs are understood to be simply off limits to modification and should be protected at all cost from erosion. So how do we deal with these closed beliefs in public life? Can we only allow some religion to enter politics if it is in the process of “opening” and only as long as it functions as an eventually defensible “IOU,” reasonable defense pending? And perhaps most importantly, is it fair to demand that religious belief holders need to crack open their closed core of sacred beliefs?

Matthew E. Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the CPRSE.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Contemporary Art and Religion - Review of a Lecture by James Elkins

“I have tried to show why committed engaged ambitious, informed art does not mix with dedicated, serious, thoughtful, heartfelt religion. Whenever the two meet one wrecks the other.”
   - James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (Routledge 2004), 115.

“We’re not here for conflict,” John Franklin announced placidly from the podium as he peered over his spectacles at the audience, “but for conversation.” Respect, curiosity, and excitement were in the air as the evening’s conversation commenced.

Last night Imago hosted a guest lecture by James Elkins, art historian, critic and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on his work related to the striking absence of religion in the contemporary art world. The problem is three-fold, according to Elkins: (1) religion is absent from contemporary art except when the object of criticism, (2) religion is absent from recent art historical and critical literature, and (3) religion is absent from the pedagogy of studio art. If an you want to make it as a contemporary artist in the art world, Elkins wryly recommended, only make art that is ambiguously critical of Western religion (the more ambiguous the better), if you decide to allude to religion at all. Religious artists (particularly those who subscribe to well-known world religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), as a result, either are unable to express their religious convictions in their art or are marginalized in the art world as sell-outs.

The contemporary art world has become so closed off to Western religion, said Elkins, and any art that “comes out” as being motivated by religious belief or as containing religious content easily gets dismissed by the art world or sidelined. While some artists experience some success within the Christian community, they are not recognized as authentic artists by the larger contemporary art world. The bottom line is that artists who want to use religious symbols, liturgy, or ideas in their art without being overtly critical of them or artists who openly profess their religious beliefs are just not often welcome in the contemporary art scene.

Elkins suggested that contemporary art can be enriched by a change in attitude toward religion, and vice versa. If only “religionists” (religious believers) could be invited to the secular conferences, maybe there could be enrichment on both sides. The only way to deal with this impasse, says Elkins, is for secular institutions to act first: “But for any of these things to happen, secular institutions have to lose some of their phobia of religion.” Unfortunately, it’s a difficult task. How do we get art and religion into conversation and still avoid the possibility that they might damage each other?

In response to Elkins’ lecture, John Franklin, executive director of Imago, explored questions of what makes art religious and what it means to be a Christian artist who is committed to making authentic and innovative works. According to Franklin, religious art is understood to be religious because of either the artist’s intention, the content of the work, the setting in which it is displayed, or the viewer’s response to it. Using this vocabulary, it's helpful to explore which of these criteria might be problematic for artists trying to be innovative and authentic and which (if any) might be points of contact between religion and the art world. Franklin’s response uncovered some of the tensions at play for Christian artists and ended on a hopeful note. “Is there a sea change happening? Are we on the threshold of a new time?”

Last night’s conversation opened up a whole range of important questions that need asking on both sides. Among these is the question of accessibility and authenticity: how does an artist make art that is authentic but still accessible to a specific religious community? One of the problems with religious art, for the contemporary art world, is that it’s too accessible; it’s so tailored to a certain community that an artist isn’t given the proper creative freedom. Elkins pointed to recent examples of art commissioned for religious use, showing that they lagged behind in the art world because of the limitations placed on them by accessibility and the pressure to avoid being offensive.

Is it possible for an artist to make art that is accessible enough to a religious community for public or liturgical appreciation without selling the artist’s authentic creativity short? To what extent and for what purpose should Christian communities use art in their community liturgical practices? These questions are live ones in our religious communities, affecting the way we think about our places of worship, our music, and the symbols around which we form our communities.

I’d like to thank James Elkins, John Franklin and Imago for hosting this important event and for contributing to the opening up of a much needed conversation between contemporary art and religion.

For more on Imago, check out Further information about James Elkins and his research can be found on his website at

Matthew E. Johnson is currently a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Hermeneutics of Ancient Astronaut Theory

“Only when I have first understood the motivating meaning of the question can I even begin to look for an answer. It is not artificial in the least to reflect upon the presuppositions implicit in our questions. On the contrary, it is artificial not to reflect upon these presuppositions. It is quite artificial to imagine that statements fall down from heaven and that they can be subjected to analytic labor without once bringing into consideration why they were stated and in what way they are responses to something. That is the first, basic, and infinitely far-reaching demand called for in any hermeneutic undertaking.”
    - Hans-Georg Gadamer. “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy.” In The Transformation of Philosophy: Hermeneutics, Rhetoric, Narrative: 333-334.

I recently came across an episode of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel that spent an enigmatic hour describing the ruins of Puma Punku in the highlands of Bolivia. The precise angles with which the giant granite boulders at Puma Punku were sliced into slabs is nothing short of incredible. Any way you look at it, Puma Punku is a great feat of engineering. How could an ancient primitive civilization have accomplished this?

In spite of myself, this episode had me fascinated. I think what was most captivating about it was one part their profound creativity speculating about the evidence and one part the passion that so obviously drove these “ancient astronaut theorists.” These guys were just loving this stuff. They were in their element; this is what they live for.

My first reaction was, of course, to laugh at how ridiculous these guys were with their implausible beliefs (and with their wild hair). But the more I reflected on it afterward, the more sympathetic I became, not because they’ve won me over to ancient astronaut theory but because of the daring way they’ve chosen their beliefs. These self-proclaimed “ancient astronaut theorists” seem to choose their particular hermeneutic approach based on its explanatory scope and on an aesthetic taste-based evaluation of the results of its application. In other words, they interpret the evidence as saying that aliens interfered with ancient human history because (1) it so easily explains much that we don’t understand about ancient history, and (2) it’s just really awesome. And strangely enough, I think I have now developed a soft spot in my heart for ancient alien theorists, and in a weird way I envy the strength of their convictions.

While this seems like an extreme case, I’m not sure it really is. I think that everyone forms their beliefs roughly in this way, religious or otherwise. It’s hard to deny that our beliefs serve a practical purpose in our emotional and social lives, giving us hope or explanation or passion or meaning. What makes the “ancient astronaut theorists” so absurd? I think it is simply that they choose their beliefs more explicitly and more directly in opposition to popular opinion than most of us do. To speculate, maybe their beliefs about aliens serves a purpose in the way their lives are infused with meaning. In that way, I’m not too different, except for maybe in the specifics.

I think that when we talk of presuppositional beliefs, religious or otherwise, it is important to explore why we hold our beliefs, or as Gadamer says, to uncover the “motivating meanings.” Sometimes it’s just superficial to talk about the actual content that we can articulate and ignore our motivations that drive our attachment to it.

If we’re interested in doing honest hermeneutics with fellow hermeneuts, we need to turn the microscope on ourselves. Hermeneutics, the task of interpreting of the world in which we find ourselves already entrenched, is always one of self-discovery. Why do I believe what I believe? What motivates me to hold these beliefs? It’s a bottomless project, Gadamer reminds us, but a fruitful one (“Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy,” 334).

What I think is so remarkable about these particular ancient astronaut theorists is that, against all opposition, they have decided to interpret the world in this way. And I suspect they are able to articulate and defend exactly what most of us wish we could uncover about ourselves. They’ve played their cards and put down their chips, while the rest of us sit and wonder what mysteries our hands hold.

But at our core, I think we’re all ancient astronaut theorists with our implausible beliefs (and sometimes even wild hair), and I think that’s really okay. Our interactions with our friends and with strangers on the street often make us play cards we didn’t know we held. Our beliefs are secured in place by support structures that we can’t see, sustained by reasons we can’t articulate. So hermeneutics is archaeology. The more we interpret, the more we reinterpret and discover ourselves. And who knows; maybe in the ruins of Puma Punku, we’ll find a granite monolith inscribed with our deepest reasons.

When we’re doing formal philosophy or having a casual conversation, there is so easily a tendency to talk past each other. Our ideas are, it seems to me, often built on intuitive hunches, and we are sometimes convinced of them long before we are able to articulate why. If Gadamer is right, and self-discovery is an endless task, is it possible actually to meet someone in conversation, or will we always pass them by in one way or another? Does a common language or vocabulary secure a shared medium between two conversation partners, or is it just impossible to come to complete grammatical agreement about meanings and reasons? How do we and how should we encounter others in the task of hermeneutics?

Matthew E. Johnson is a current junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Forty Days Later on a Thursday

Ascension Day blew past this year, and I didn’t take notice. But I felt something lock into place last week, as if spring finally got its act together. The gardens on my street exploded in color, and the trees tentatively began to leaf all around the city. It had been a long winter, but by Thursday of last week, spring had finally taken off.

Forty days after Easter on a Thursday, the Anglican Church commemorates the day Jesus sprung into the heavens, leaving his earthbound followers dumbfounded and grounded, full of unanswered questions and half-formed hopes.

“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples asked Jesus (Acts 1:6). But the question hung suspended, burning in the air, as Jesus responded, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Wait and see. The kingdom will come when it comes; the seasons will change when they change.

I’ve heard Christians talk again and again about how the first century Israelites blew it, and how the priests and teachers of the law were malicious bad guys. The Son of God was right under their nose, but all they did was sneeze him out of Jerusalem like spring pollen.

But I think it’s more complicated than that. The Hebrew scriptures gave them legitimate reasons to expect that the Messiah to come would literally usher back in the golden age monarchy of the Davidic kingdom, ending Israel’s exile from their homeland and from their God forever. Israel would finally escape the bonds placed upon them by the foreigners holding them in political captivity and be their own people. So let’s give first century Judaism a break. If Israel’s God is who he says he is, Israel was right to expect a grand return from exile and a re-gathering of its scattered people.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Jesus jumped ship right when Israel needed a strong political revolutionary most, leaving his followers scratching their heads, wondering what to do next. So what about the great deliverance? What about Israel’s return from exile? What about the reestablishment of the kingdom? What about the promises of Israel’s God?

I can imagine the disciples, and us with them on Thursday forty days after Easter, staring slack-jawed on Ascension Day as the one upon whom they placed all their hopes and dreams floated away like a helium balloon, leaving them with nothing but a tremendous sense of loss and the feeling of being stranded in a place that was just beginning to feel like home.

Throughout the history of Western culture and philosophy, we seem to have never fully recovered from the loss of our balloon. Keeping company with Plato, philosophy has looked up and beyond, trying to peel back the superficial layers of reality and peer inside to find its true shape. When the disciples stood stuck staring up, philosophy followed their gaze, searching for the realm where the true forms of reality reside. Both look upward, wishing they weren’t so earthbound, and ache for a world that is more than just a dirty mirror like this one.

The past century or two is filled with thinkers from all over the world struggling to push past this intellectual inheritance that points to the hidden reality beyond, just out of reach, and they urge us to forget about our helium balloon and take a look around. Maybe, just maybe, we can say meaningful things about our world here and now without appealing to the great beyond, what’s really out there, the truth hidden inside reality. The philosophers catch us lost in longing for a ghostly plane that most properly exists and for a language to speak that captures the truest truth, and they ask the same that the men robed white asked Jesus’ followers: “Why do you stand looking up?”

This, it seems to me, the default tendency for many of us Christians, as it was for the disciples and for the philosophers of the past. We have this idea that the ascension of Jesus somehow translated everything that matters into spiritual, intangible reality, always occluded from view. The best world is the next one; the most valuable things are the ones we can’t see, hear, taste, or touch.

But each time I read the Ascension Day speech of Jesus according to Matthew, I hear spring, rebirth, the revitalization of what is now. I hear echoes of the words of King Cyrus, the Persian king who called Israel back from their exile in Babylon, under the God of Israel’s authority inviting the people into restoration (Ezra 1:2-4). Likewise, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Now go and gather the exiles, the lost and confused, brokenhearted and hurting, throughout all the world.

So here’s the punch line. I think it’s a mistake to read the New Testament as something “new,” something more spiritual than what came before, something that points us upward and pulls us out of this world. On the contrary, it pushes us deeper into the world, calling us to discover the strangers and invite them in; we are in the business, as Jesus was, of gathering the exiles to form a unity centered around the Messiah who ascends, not into the ghostly ether where we should wish we could be, but to the center of what is here and now. As Martin Heidegger might say, we are not just floating ghosts who happen to be located in a body and a world; we are always already in the world, constituted by it, and inescapably connected to it.

My hope for faith and for philosophy is that each can fasten its gaze firmly to what matters most. If we can tear our eyes away from the tragedy of our faded helium balloon and take a look at what is right under our noses and before our eyes, we might just be struck slack-jawed again by what we find in the stranger, the neighbor, the friend. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / to the Father through the features of men’s faces” (from “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame”).

Ascension Day blows by, and when we finally slow to catch our breath and take notice, we find that life in all its richness has sprung up and taken off, breathing freshness into the most regular things at the most ordinary times. Maybe the ascended Christ hasn’t abandoned us after all.

Matthew E. Johnson is a current junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, serving as the research assistant for the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics.