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From pragmatism to the practical: reflections on the Stout, Rorty, Hauerwas debate

July 24, 2010 5 comments

What’s interesting to me about Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, and his rebuttals to the critical responses of West, Rorty, and Hauerwas in the panel discussion published in the recent JAAR volume, is not so much his commitment to pragmatism (which is, notably, complicated by his recogntition of the  plurivocity of this term) but rather his evident insistence upon being practical

The former, I take it, has considerable positive content.  Stout and Rorty disagree precisely on whether a preference for secularity is essential to this content.  Stout thinks no strong preference of this kind is entailed.  Rorty–insofar as he remains worried about the authoritarian implications of metaphysical (or metaphysical-like) theories of truth, including Christian, Platonic, Cartesian, and others–continues to argue for the importance of such a preference, even though he interestingly suggests (citing Wolterstorff) that theists can legitimately speak from their own points-of-view in the public square.  

But, as Hauerwas’ line of questioning makes clear, and as Stout himself emphasizes, an account of pragmatism which is less restrictive than Rorty’s is not, for this reason, lacking in certain commitments, which constitute a positive tradition.  The main challenge which Hauerwas poses to Stout, as I see it, is that the compatibility of Stout’s more inclusive but still somewhat positive version of pragmatism with the radical demands of Christian discipleship is not a foregone conclusion.  Stout’s hospitality to the Christian other, however welcome and welcoming it is, however refreshingly different from Rorty’s performatively dogmatic secularism, nevertheless may not be able to embrace this other as such, absolutely, without qualification.  A Stoutian society may still be one in which Christians have got to compromise themselves, to some extent, albeit to a much lesser extent than Rorty would ultimately want.

In the end, the question is this: If one wants to be more than a Christian pragmatist (a position which, thanks to West and others, as Stout contends, need not be construed as oxymoronic) and become, above all else, and without compromise, a Christian simpliciter (a disciple of Christ and not Emerson, James, Dewey, etc.), does this desire commit one to becoming impractical?  To be practical would entail minimally taking seriously in some way or another the pluralistic fact of humanity, because such is the state of the real world in which action is possible, in which alone discipleship can be embodied and not merely envisioned.  This is the challenge which Stout poses to Hauerwas, but also to Christians more generally.  Stout also makes a recommendation, in the form of a (revisionist-)pragmatist account of the practical.  But it seems to me that the space for future dialogue is precisely the practical as such, which includes the given constraints of profound human diversity, but which is not necessarily in every respect identifiable with a pragmatist account of the practical, even of a Stoutian variety. 

The logic of Stout’s work and the intelligibility of Hauerwas’ response to it seem to be pushing in this direction.  Away from pragmatism as the condition of dialogue (though it remains in the dialogue) and toward a more general framework of concern, not structurally positioned (in any respect) against the theological but not explicitly entailing it either: a framework which I’m calling here “the practical.”

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New JAAR on theology, secularity, and politics

July 22, 2010 3 comments

It’s relatively rare that a whole issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion is directly relevant to theologians, so for those of you who don’t receive it, I thought it worth mentioning that the most recent one (78.2, June 2010) is. The whole issue is devoted to theology, secularity, and political participation.

Table of contents:

  • “Post-secular Society: Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular”—by Ingolf U. Dalferth
  • “After the Secular: Toward a Pragmatic Public Theology”—by Michael S. Hogue
  • “Turning to Narrative: Toward a Feminist Theological Interpretation of Political Participation and Personhood”—by Rosemary P. Carbine
  • “Pragmatism and Democracy: Assessing Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition“—panel discussion with Cornel West, Richard Rorty, Stanley Hauerwas and Jeffrey Stout, edited by Jason Springs
  • “Radical Islam and Human Rights Values: A ‘Religious-Minded’ Critique of Secular Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”—by Jenna Reinbold
  • “The Return of Comparative Theology”—by Reid B. Locklin and Hugh Nicholson

There’s one other essay, “The Romans and Ritual Murder” by Celia E. Schultz, which the editor says was meant to belong to the last issue.

Learning a Foreign Language

July 21, 2010 8 comments

Learning to read a foreign language is often one of the more frustrating parts of graduate school, particularly for those who do not come in with a great language background or who are simply not gifted with languages. The fact that crash-courses and reading exams make sophisticated texts only slightly accessible adds to this frustration. I remember trying to read Balthasar after passing my German exam and having trouble understanding even the basics of the text; not exactly an encouraging experience. What is the best way to become more proficient in reading another language?  For the past few years I have been fairly diligent about working on German. I have tried many different strategies and, even though they may not be novel, I want to point to number that I have found helpful:

  • The most common advice I have heard is simply to make a regular schedule of reading whatever language you are working on. Everyday or a few times a week, read something in that language whether it is theological or just a newspaper article. This is, of course, absolutely true but the fact is that most of us know this and very few people end up maintaining it is the midst of  coursework/exams/dissertation. Therefore:
  • Find a few books that you would actually enjoy reading. For me, this meant getting some of the Harry Potter books in German. This has given me something easy to read when I get tired of academic German but want to keep to my reading schedule. Another great book for me has been Ich bin dann mal wegthe best-selling journal of a comedian/actor about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The particular works aren’t important. Just find a few that you can move in and out of when you feel like it.
  • Find an article or book that you absolutely need (I assume that if you are trying to move beyond the beginning level of a language there will be such texts). I have started many articles/books which I thought might be helpful or be good practice but unless the piece is really necessary, I have found it hard to keep with it when it gets difficult.
  • Learn to speak the language at a basic level. I am by no means advanced in my German (I have gotten myself to somewhere around the intermediate level in speaking), but learning to produce German at even a basic level has given me a much better feel for the language and helped my speed and comprehension when reading. Of course, learning to actively produce a language takes even more time and usually means taking classes or a trip abroad. 
  • Find a reading group. However, I have found that unless the text being read is either enjoyable or necessary, groups oftentimes fall apart as quickly as an individual stop reading on his/her own.

Any other practices that people have found helpful?

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Knowledge and Love

July 20, 2010 1 comment

From the chapter “God of Knowledge” in Rahner’s Encounters with Silence:

How can we approach the heart of all things, the true heart of reality? Not by knowledge alone, but by the full flower of knowledge, love. Only the experience of knowledge’s blooming into love has any power to work a transformation in me, in my very self. For it is only when I am fully present to an object that I am changed by meeting it. And it is only in love that I am fully present – not in bare knowing, but in the affection engendered by knowing. Only then is my knowledge anything more than a fleeting shadow, passing across the stage of consciousness. Then I have knowledge which is really myself, which abides as I myself abide.

Only knowledge gained through experience, the fruit of living and suffering, fills the heart with the wisdom of love, instead of crushing it with the disappointment of boredom and final oblivion. It is not the results of our own speculation, but the golden harvest of what we have lived through and suffered through, that has power to enrich the heart and nourish the spirit. And all the knowledge we have acquired through study can do no more than give us some little help in meeting the problems of life with an alert and ready mind.

Thanks to Your mercy, O Infinite God, I know something about You not only through concepts and words, but through experience. I have actually known You through living contact; I have met You in joy and suffering. For You are the first and last experience of my life. Yes, really You Yourself, not just a concept of You…

You have seized me; I have not ‘grasped’ You. You have transformed my being right down to its very last roots and made me a sharer in Your own Being and Life. You have given me Yourself, not just a distant, fuzzy report of Yourself in human words. And that’s why I can never forget You, because You have become the very center of my being.

Encounter’s with Silence, 29-31

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Citing the blogosphere

July 19, 2010 9 comments

I also meant to mention that the same Peter Dula essay includes, in a bibliographic footnote about recent critiques of Hauerwas, a reference to Halden’s blog. He cites “the numerous conversations at Halden Doerge’s wonderful blog, ‘Inhabitatio Dei,'” and provides the URL to Halden’s whole Hauerwas category (p. 390, f. 51). Maybe they are more common than I think, but this is the first time I’ve seen a blog cited in a serious academic journal. And it was used exactly right, in my opinion: as evidence of increasing “conversations” about a particular theme or direction of thought. (Not that that’s the only way blogs could be usefully cited in an academic essay, but it does serve that purpose well.)

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