Sunday, November 14, 2010


Sunday Reflection: Theologians, Philosophers, and the cold hard ground

I often meet philosophers and theologians where they are-- that is, I leave my perch in a part of the academy (criminal law) where every move is intimately wound around real lives and tragedy, and instead speak in abstractions based on the writings of people long dead. I am fascinated by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hamilton, and Bonhoffer, and revel in talking about their ideas with smart, well-read people.

Very often, though, I find that the favor is not returned. When I try to nudge them towards applying their ideas to my world, they resist like a stubborn mule. It is perplexing and frustrating-- why do they not want that level of relevance?

It happened again this week,with a very prominent academic. His specialty is the dignity and value of human life. I read his book, and found it fascinating. After all, my own field (sentencing) is nothing more than a public discussion of the dignity and value of a human life, which often concludes with a precise decision as to how to separate that person from everything that makes him human-- his family, his freedom, his passions in the outside world-- and condemn him to prison or death.

This great thinker would not go there. Rather than pondering the job of a prosecutor stuck in the task of evaluating dignity while bound by secular law, he simply said that "our society isn't secular." I tried a few times to get him to engage in a discussion of what real people do in the real world, in this case a part of the world that was a road test of his ideas, but he preferred to reiterate the constructs in his own mind, and never did talk about that lawyer who has to actually evaluate and describe the value of a person. Sigh.

Of course, this is not always the case. At Baylor, I found many people who were both engaged with the world and great texts and ideas, and often brought those together in surprising and wonderful ways. In fairness, too, I imagine that I would have gotten a better response this week if he had known my question was coming or I had explained my idea more thoroughly.

But what of the this issue generally? Is philosophy or theology really worth pursuing if it steadfastly refuses to interact with our world?

Should it matter to a Christian theologian or philosopher that Christ's teachings were always intimately related to the human condition in a real and present way?

For what it is worth, I don't go as far as Wilco on this:

It's symptomatic of analytic philosophy, the tendency to see problems, even ethical ones, as abstract exercises in language or logic games, mere puzzles to be reasoned out, or something to be ferreted out by discursive reasoning.

The continental tradition suffers from its own unique flaws, but at least it stresses engagement with the world and the practical effects thereof. I recommend Willem Bonger as my favorite critical criminologist.
Wilco, a good band
but possibly their song is
bad for theologists
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