Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

What is Creaturely Theology?

First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.

Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however, Read the rest of this entry »

Trinity Sunday sermon: Deep Thoughts

The following is this Sunday’s sermon at Zion “Goshert’s” UCC; the readings are Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8; and Matthew 28:16-20. An additional lection will be Revelation 21:1-5. This Sunday, the first after Pentecost, is the liturgical observation of Trinity Sunday.  The sermon is, as usual, a work in progress.  Thanks.

We all know the creation story that appears in Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 2.  Many of us probably know that it is immediately followed, in Genesis 2:4b and following, by a second creation story, and some of you might know that there are at least two more creation stories in the Bible, most prominently Proverbs 8 and John 1.

If you’ve been in a Bible study, you might know some of the weird things happening in the creation story.  It’s interesting that God refers to ‘Godself’ as “we” and “our” when speaking about the creation of the humans.  It’s also interesting that the order of events is a little different than the second account of creation that follows the first.  If you look closely at the first words of the Bible, it is not “in the beginning, God created,” but “in the beginning, when God created”:  the difference of having the “when” in the first verse indicates that the creation story here is not an absolute beginning.  It’s just the beginning of earth. Read the rest of this entry »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,572 other followers