In our "Why Do Philosophy?" episode, we give a sales pitch for philosophy: for being interested in reading this stuff (and what makes it appeal to us more than popular science or history or literature, though those are all great too). I recently got the chance to make this pitch to an audience of liberal clergy-folk; I was interviewed on God Complex Radio. Listen to the interview here. As you'll hear, I felt a bit like I was being interviewed for a job, and was a bit stretched to try to answer questions to the effect of "why should pastors engage in more philosophy?" and "how has participating in PEL episodes changed your life?"
If you're not familiar with that podcast, they have a variety of authors and other folks, mostly "mainline Protestant" pastors and such, talking about such topics as the concern within the church about falling memberships and the rise of the "spiritual but not religious" category, how religious language gets abused in political discourse, topics in theology (here's one on process theology that some philosophical folks might like), political issues (here's one on gun violence prevention), and in several cases, the book that the guest is promoting is some kind of memoir. The combined effect (and you can listen to these pretty quickly on double speed, so I got through about a dozen episodes in just a few days) is to get a glimpse into this foreign (to me) land of pastorage.
The format of the podcast is to let the guest give his or her spiel for the first half and then use the second half to give the hosts the verbal space to stretch out. In the case of my interview, it was interesting to hear the hosts Derrick Weston and (not the regular co-host) Anna Woffenden say what they got out of it, and how philosophy, even for pastors who have intellectual discussions more or less for a living, can be intimidating. (Though I promise that it wouldn't have seemed this way to them if we had all prepped by reading a common text; I'm in negotiation with them to potentially have one of the folks involved in this to come on a probably far-future episode on faith.) They also expressed the usual skepticism with the capacity of philosophy to actually help people, and seemed to settle on it being valuable as a "formative" experience, as if the point is to achieve a firm faith and then focus on practical matters. This is a bit surprising to me to hear this sentiment from this quarter, but I guess they see the church as not primarily spiritual/intellectual sustenance for people, but as a tool for positive social change. Who knew?
We've talked a lot on PEL about the downsides of going into philosophy professionally, but of course the alternative if you're a philosophy junkie is to, well, start a podcast, I guess, or go join a meet-up discussion group. There's not much social place in the U.S. at present, certainly, to start up a Socrates-like cadre who will sit and listen to you try to instruct them outside of a classroom setting ("What are you, a cult leader?"); it's a bitch to even get people to read your amateur philosophy book (so I'm told). So we non-professional philosophers are always a little jealous of this nice, tax-exempt pastor life-option, which I for one would have to become a Unitarian to pursue, even though we also recognize that there's a lot of congregation-serving that's far outside what most amateur philosophers would probably be prepared to tackle. Well, the glimpse of this profession I've gotten through God Complex reminds me very much of what I've seen when I went to get my quickie master's in Library Science during my final year of philosophy grad school, and what I've observed since in being in touch with the world of librarians through my various jobs since. Librarians tend to feel very put upon, and defensive about the value of their profession. What with changing times (the Internet, chiefly, but also changes in what governments want to spend, or not spend, money on), they feel threatened and unappreciated, but firmly believe they're providing a valuable service that their clients couldn't just replace by their own devices (though they may think so). So the parallel with clergy-folk today, at least liberal clergy-folk, whose parishioners are maybe less likely to keep going to church out of habit or family tradition than other religious folk, appears strong to me. They also feel like they've been caught in the cross-fire of the culture wars, where conservative evangelicals have gained such political power that people increasingly equate Christianity with creationism and homophobia and being against any government action that might help the poor.
So, much like my forays into the world of Buddhism, listening to God Complex in preparation for this interview showed me not only some new philosophical approaches, but a new sociological niche for thinkers, philosophy certainly not being the only destination for seekers after truth. Check it out if you're interested.
why do they have a picture of John Cusack up for philotalk, oh wait never mind…
Simon Borrington says
Hey Mark, I thought you did a pretty good job there, although I found myself waiting for Seth to rein you back in!
All the best.
I thought you articulating why philosophy well, Mark. I continued to listen after you departed the podcast and curious why constructive doubt isn’t part of religious thinking as the norm rather than something outside the box.
Daniel Horne says
It’s been my experience that constructive doubt isn’t the norm with any group of people, religious or otherwise!
I will never forget the feeling in the course Religious Person and Traditions, grasping the difference between faith and beliefs. To have the professor teaching the course affirm constructive doubt is a search for a deeper understanding involving obstacles and bewilderment… . Well, reflecting, after taking the final exam and thanking him I wonder if he comprehended what he had done. It may sound futile but what a priceless gift, and I will never forget the feeling that it’s okay or maybe I was okay.
John A Taylor says
Mark, as one who lived in the “land of pastorage” for over two decades, I’m looking forward to taking a listen this weekend.
Good post. I thought I would share with you a short message from Anthony DeMello. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_de_Mello He was a Jesuit priest, psychotherapist, and philosopher and one of the great awakened thinkers of our time in my opinion. Here is a short sample of his powerful message: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oExgl6iAYt0
Gary Chapin says
Just listened while out walking the dog. Well done, Mark! They admitted being intimidated, and you could hear it in their silence after you spoke. But I don’t see how that could be avoided since one of the things I’ve learned from PEL is that philosophy is an activity far more than a subject (or, rather, philosophy is more interesting as an activity). On PEL you engage the text and each other. On God Complex they were asking you “tell us about philosophy” and not asking to DO philosophy.
I think you nailed it that it is the essence of philosophy to be “in question.” Theology is far more about the nature of the answers.
Finally, does philosophy improve your life or make you happy? I’ve gotten tremendous satisfaction from doing philosophy since discovering PEL three years ago, but for a long time it definitely fomented discontent in me. For the past few months, I’ve noticed a shift where it has actually been an aid in helping me be in the world.
At the end of the episode they say, “In the end, the best proof of the existence of God is living a life of love.” Not mocking, but it’s a different world, innit?