An Interview with J. Aaron Simmons
Interviewd by Martin Shuster
1. How did you get interested in philosophy of religion? And how do you understand the role of this sub-discipline within philosophy more broadly? I ask especially because in many Anglophone circles it has fallen into great disrepute being equated essentially with Christian apologia.
Well, ironically, I got into philosophy of religion largely through such Christian apologetic work, though I have a very different view of such work today than I did when I first started reading it. When I was in graduate school, I realized that my own Christian identity was something that was often viewed as problematic to the life of an intellectual. Much like Martin Heidegger once noted regarding religious belief, some of my professors seemed to indicate that being a Christian academic was simply to start where I was supposed to finish. For them, I was like a lived example of question-begging. Though I agree that religious belief and identity can serve as an obstacle to engaged thinking, I don’t think that religion is somehow distinct in this regard. We all start from somewhere when we ask questions. Indeed, the questions we ask are largely products of such starting points. That said, I remember being very troubled and wondered whether I had to abandon my Christian identity in order to think well. There is certainly no shortage of voices in the academy who would answer in the affirmative. Nonetheless, I figured that I needed to make sense of how that famous relationship between faith and reason, or Jerusalem and Athens, or the soul and the mind, or whatever, was going to play out for me.
I was reading a good deal of Kierkegaard then (and now) and so the importance of finding a truth for which I would “live and die” seemed very sensible. So, I started reading anything and everything that I could get my hands on that dealt with Christianity and intellectual life (and philosophy specifically). I read both academic and also more popular writers including Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Richard Swinburne, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Marilyn Adams, and many more. Additionally, I started reading more classical Christian theology, Augustine, Aquinas, Eckhart, John of the Cross, Thomas A Kempis, Theresa of Avila, and many others. Meanwhile I was reading a bunch of existentialism, phenomenology, and deconstructionism in my graduate coursework and so trying to keep all of this together in some sort of coherent approach to my own faith-life and academic trajectory was a difficult task. But, what ended up happening was that I learned three things from these three different discourses and then tried to figure out how they could work together. Namely, from contemporary (generally apologetic) philosophy of religion, I discovered that Christian belief and identity could be intellectually respectable. From Christian theology, I discovered that Christianity is not a stagnant set of propositions that one must affirm, but a living tradition full of dynamic disagreement, critical questions, and as much about practice as belief. From postmodern philosophy, I discovered that thinking well is a matter of subjective and personal investment, not detached speculation. When I considered these three things together, I realized that my own Pentecostal religious identity already appreciated all of these ideas. Being intellectually respectable is not simply about holding appropriate beliefs, but about living those beliefs out in a community and a tradition, and investing oneself in what being part of such a community and tradition requires. In other words, I eventually realized that my Christianity was not an obstacle for my philosophical calling. Instead, complacency about one’s faith and one’s thought is the challenge that must be overcome day in and day out. But, Christian theology already claims the same thing (consider Eckhart’s prayer to overcome his conception of God so that he might be open to seeing God).
Moreover, the postmodern tastes that I was developing philosophically resonated with what I took to be present in my own understanding of Christian tradition: a priesthood of all believers (what a nice way of expressing the democratization of truth), incarnation (think here of the importance of embodiment for thinking), the Gospel presented through four personal accounts (sounds like the postmodern idea that truth is narrative), etc. I say all of this in order to point out that Christian apologetics did not interest me as definitive arguments for the existence of God, say, or as an explanation for why all rational persons ought to hold a specific set of beliefs about the divine. Instead, what I found so compelling was the seriousness with which these individuals thought about their faith and tried to make sense of it. I now think that the apologetic aims of much of Christian philosophy, though often overstated by critics, are problematic in that they tend to shut down discourse rather than to foster it with conversation partners who might start with different assumptions.
As such, I appreciate the role that apologetics can play for those who ask questions for which apologetics might give plausible answers. However, I just don’t think that apologetics addresses all questions and certainly not the most important ones. For example, even if the ontological argument holds is shown to be sound, this does not mandate the subjective investment that I take to be central to religious existence. In other words, faith is not a strengthened by a greater degree of epistemic warrant. But, apologetic work might indeed open space for someone such that the risky decision of faith is a live option.
This is a very long answer to your question and I apologize for that, but it is important to understand my view of apologetics in order to understand why I am simultaneously very critical of such discourse as too often defined by a hermeneutic blindness and dialogical arrogance, and yet have no problem with it counting as legitimate philosophical discourse in its own right. Again, we all start from somewhere. The important thing for philosophers is to recognize what will count as authoritative for our philosophical community and tradition. It is unlikely that we can simply transpose authority structures from religious communities onto our own. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we won’t find good reasons to think that such religious authorities are worth our investment and commitment, etc.
So, how do I see philosophy of religion as a subdiscipline in philosophy more broadly? I see it as that area of philosophy interested in questions that have traditionally been of concern to philosophers who think about matters that are often named “religious.” This is a thriving area of philosophical work and one in which I am proud to participate. Nonetheless, I do think that this subdiscipline often becomes insular and self-protective in ways that stifle the deliberative engagement that it was meant to foster. But, there is nothing distinctive about philosophy of religion in this regard. Continental philosophy can quickly become an insider’s game that only allows those who speak Heideggerian, or more recently, Deleuzean, to play. Alternatively, contemporary analytic philosophy of mind can be so committed to a naturalized approach to evidence that only philosophers trained in cognitive science are able to contribute to the debates. And so on.
Is philosophy of religion problematically confused with Christian apologetics? Probably. But, the problem here is perpetrated by two groups on two fronts: those who think philosophy can’t allow for such apologetic work, and those who think that such apologetic work should be the primary task of philosophy of religion. As I see it, both views are wrongheaded. I am all for apologetics if that simply means that we give good reasons for the views that we hold (including our religious beliefs). Yet, all reasons should be understood as contextually located, and activated by the embodied practices that animate our daily lives. I have called for “postmodern apologetics” precisely in order to resist, on the one hand, the notion, which seems to be perpetrated by many continental philosophers of religion, that arguments have no role in religious life, and on the other hand, the idea, which seems to be perpetrated by many analytic philosophers of religion, that philosophy and theology are indistinguishable and (indeed) the best theologians are likely to be philosophers. Both views go too far for me.
Ultimately, I guess that I would say that since I got into philosophy of religion as an existential search for my own professional and confessional identity, I think philosophy of religion should be an aid in such questioning, whether one is a Christian, a Jew, or (as Derrida says) rightly passes as an atheist.
Ok, I will respond more briefly for the rest of the questions.
2. I’ve got to ask a follow-up question—obviously, you’ve presented a lot here, and we could have a far longer discussion, but my one basic question, I suppose, is why do you think the academy is the best place for an existential search or a search for confessional identity? I ask not in order to put you into a defensive register (as if one somehow ‘can’t’ do this in the academy), but rather to ask more about the academy itself, which increasingly suffers from rigid professionalization and seems often to prohibit exactly the sort of thing you are describing here.
Ah, so let me make clear that I do not think that the academy is the best place for such existential searches—it might even be a very bad place for them. Often the academy is defined by the rigid professionalization that you describe and such work can actively challenge the sort of trajectory I describe in my own case. Nonetheless, I think that Pierre Hadot is right to describe philosophy as a “way of life” and not simply a particular highly specialized career. Of course, that doesn’t mean that philosophy is not both things for those who also make their living by engaging in research and teaching. As I see it, Hadot is right in line with Kierkegaard, who (following Socrates) understood engaged questioning and pursuing truth to be a “task for a lifetime.” The point is that seeking truth, or loving wisdom, or however one wants to define the basic philosophical impulse, is a matter of subjective investment—what Kierkegaard terms “faith.” So, the attempt to be “faithful” is, for me, something that I think characterizes the philosophical life itself. The question is, then, to what ought we to be faithful? Philosophical debate occurs in light of that question. Not all approaches to existence are identical. Not all accounts of the good, the true, and the beautiful are compatible. It matters not only that we articulate good arguments in light of the evidence available, but also that we then attempt to live lives that resonate with those arguments. Additionally, we may run into a bunch of places where arguments hit existential limits and life is more complicated than logic seems to admit. Rather than say that philosophy ends at such spots, I think that we, instead, recognize that it might be there that philosophy really gets going. It all depends on what one expects philosophy to get us.
As Socrates demonstrates in the Phaedo, when we face death, that is not a time to stop thinking, but instead it is a time to live maximally—philosophy, if it is anything, should be engaged in such living. As Derrida says in one of his interviews, he hopes that he has “learned to live finally.” What I love about that phrase is the ambiguity in the finality. Is it “learned to live, finally”? As in, “whew, that took a long time, but I made it!” Or, is it “learned to live finally”? In this sense, it is a matter of realizing that living requires a living-toward, a “human, all too human” realization of finitude as the condition and quality of existence. I think that it is important to keep this tension/ambiguity in place.
So, I have no grand visions of philosophy as the only way, or even the best way to live well. But, for me (again, I probably read too much Kierkegaard), it is the only and best way available for where I find myself. With as much energy as I have, then, I will do my best to recommend it to others. Often, that means that I am at odds with some of the hyper-professionalization of academic philosophy, but I am fine with that. I think that there is room for both dimensions in one’s life. Importantly, though, the existential and lived dimension of philosophy that I advocate is not at odds with rigorous thinking. Sometimes sloppy thinking gets allowed because it sounds “existentially deep” or something. It is as if being opaque must mean that one is profound. I disagree. Thinking deeply should invite thinking and writing clearly. That doesn’t mean that all philosophical writing will look the same, however. There is room for in philosophy for the stylistic differences between Kierkegaard and Quine, say. Both thinkers are serious and worth serious consideration. When I recommend a generally existential approach to philosophy, my hope is not that we will make philosophy more poetic, but simply that we will resist the idea that academic philosophy must be objective and neutral in ways that take contemporary scientific experimentation as the model for inquiry. Such apparent objectivity and neutrality might be important in some cases and in relation to some questions, but not in everything. Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and more recently Michel Henry have all rightly worried about the overly scientific approach to existence.
Sometimes life has to be lived, rather than merely analyzed, but we can and should philosophize about the difference. Thinking well doesn’t require that life stop in order to think. Instead, perhaps thinking well should account for where we find ourselves while thinking. For my part, I think philosophy is especially well suited for diving deep in light of that realization. Thinking is risky because it is a matter of life and death, not primarily because it is a matter of getting tenure.
3. Your work in philosophy of religion has always seemed to orient itself towards ethical and political issues — how do you see these as related to philosophy of religion? Indeed, religion more broadly? What also, do you make of the resurgence of interest in political theology?
Well, I am not sure what to say about the resurgence of interest in political theology. I admit that there is a lot that I find very productive and important about such work. Following the lead of someone like Reinhold Niebuhr, I am deeply impressed by those who are able to make philosophical theology and philosophy of religion speak to the concrete moral and political situations in which we find ourselves. Yet, some of recent political theology seems to me to be not much more than an attempt to talk about “religion,” and/or “God,” and/or “faith” without wanting any of the determinate theological or historically religious dimensions in play. So, for some contemporary political theology, I just don’t think there is much theology there in the first place. Instead, it reads to me more like political ideology critique with a bunch of God-talk thrown in.
I am always suspicious when religion or theology is “reduced” to political discourse. This can happen in two ways. On the one hand, it can occur as a matter of political science or sociology, whereby “religion” is a socio-political category for naming people and then fitting them into our data set. On the other hand, it can occur as a matter of, generally, postmodern philosophy or religious studies, whereby “religion” is a constructed name for specific dimensions of cultural production. My worry about both gestures is that they are reductive to the possibilities for religion as a way of life. Now, I do think that religion and religious phenomena are always also political, cultural, social, etc., but not simply or merely that.
As far as my own work, I figure that my interests in the ethico-political dimensions of religious existence arise from two sources. First, a bit more personally, I am a Pentecostal and so my religious tradition has a long history of social engagement and progressive ideas about race and economics, etc. And yet, it is also a tradition that has too often reflected the conservative and capitalistic dimensions that define so much of contemporary evangelicalism. Accordingly, finding ways for productively thinking about religion as concerns ethics and politics allows me to figure out how I relate to my own tradition, while challenging the assumptions that so often characterize it nowadays. Second, and a bit more academically, I am deeply interested in the ways that many new phenomenologists (such as Levinas and Derrida) think about religion and justice as always intertwined (sometimes even interchangeable, but that is a mistake for similar reasons as I mention above regarding the reductionist tendencies often seen in relation to religion). So, I think that thinking well about religion requires thinking well about justice, and vice versa. Exactly what is at stake in such a relationship admits of a variety of views and I think philosophy is benefited from thinking carefully about the relevant alternatives on this front.
4. How do you envision so-called ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ philosophy? What do those terms mean to you, how do you navigate them, and so forth?
Wow. Well, this is a bigger question than I think I can get into here. So let me offer simply my own way of approaching things and leave it at that. I think that the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ monikers serve to orient a thinker in relation to the archive upon which she draws. An “analytic philosopher” is someone who draws primarily upon work that is termed “analytic philosophy,” and a “continental philosopher” is someone who draws primarily upon work that is termed “continental philosophy.” There are some accounts one might offer for a neat distinction between these philosophical traditions, but best I can tell, all such accounts fail to hold up for long. There are, no doubt, historical reasons for locating Heidegger in the “continental” camp, and Quine in the “analytic” camp, but I think any hard and fast distinction ends up limiting the work that individual philosophers are able to do. For that reason, I advocate what I call “mashup philosophy,” which is an attempt to draw upon whatever resources/archives that are philosophically relevant. As such, continental philosophy doesn’t have to be analytic in order to be good philosophy, and analytic philosophy doesn’t have be continental in order to be relevant to existence. They are both traditions that matter and we should turn to them both (and everything in between) as we continue to seek truth where we find ourselves.
5. You have spent a lot of time in attempting to bring together deconstruction and something like “determinate religion” — two things which each of the parties involved seem to take as entirely separate. What has motivated this project? And how do you see this motivation connection to this project?
My work in this regard is entirely philosophical. Simply put, I found the indeterminacy of so much of deconstructive philosophy of religion to be unmotivated by the arguments in play. So, I set out to offer what I think are better arguments. The conclusion of those arguments are rarely (if ever) apologetic, but instead are meta-philosophical. My thesis in almost all of my work in this area is simply that deconstruction does not necessitate indeterminate notions of God, religion, and faith. Instead, deconstruction is compatible with very traditional and historically manifest communities of faith in a variety of world religions. In this way, my critique of indeterminacy is not because I think it is false, but simply because I don’t think it is the only option. The commitments of deconstruction are such, I argue, that there are a lot of religious options and religious traditions left on the table. So, when I speak of “religion with religion,” my aim is not to reject Derrida’s “religion without religion,” but to think in light of it while leaving open the possibility of being determinately Christian, Jewish, Atheist, or whatever. As far as I can tell, this is the only consistent approach to religion within deconstruction—again, at a meta-philosophical level and not an apologetic one.
6. What do you find most fascinating about this group research and project? What do you see as its biggest potential pitfalls?
I am excited about this project because the cross-cultural dimensions of religion are aspects in which that I just don’t have a lot of background. So, though I argue for the philosophical legitimacy of deconstructive approaches to Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism, say, I don’t have the expertise to think through what such approaches would entail and involve. This project allows me to learn from my colleagues and expand my own understanding of a category for thought and identity that I use so often. The pitfalls, perhaps ironically, attend to the same thing that excites me. Namely, cross-cultural engagement always risks problems of translation and misunderstanding. My hope is that we are able to learn from each other and have our own work transformed as a result, without thereby imperialistically appropriating those traditions in ways that just reinscribe our own assumptions and concepts.
7. What are your hopes for where this research ought or might go?
I hope that it goes forward toward productive research into religious understanding. This might seem trivial, but this is hard stuff to work through and in light of the various challenges to thinking about what we call “religion,” I think such work is important indeed. I am also optimistic about this project because I don’t have a clear sense of where it will end up. That means it is a project that will genuinely ask questions that need asked, rather than just reiterating standard answers to questions that then are covered over and ignored.
8. What are your general thoughts about the present state of philosophy — how do you see this current project fitting in?
I am always proud to be a philosopher and this project just deepens that pride. I think that the biggest challenge to philosophy in the contemporary world is the commercialization of higher education. Philosophy has to find ways not simply to compete in a market driven landscape where jobs are the only criteria for college majors and social value, but also to challenge such criteria themselves by opening new spaces for innovative thinking and living. Philosophy has always been more of a way of life than simply a means to a job and we have to find ways to bring philosophical living into the public square in productive ways. I hope that this project contributes even just a little bit to addressing this broad social concern. A lot hangs in the balance.
This interview was conducted over several rounds of e-mail.