Sunday, December 23, 2012

Just a couple of thoughts at the end of the semester

There are so many joys in teaching that they almost always outweigh those moments when some friend reminds me that he makes more than twice what I do, and still thinks he is underpaid. However, those moments--seeing the spark of curiosity or learning something from the fresh and incisive perspective of an undergraduate--are hard to remember at the end of term, when the pain of grading and realizing that this has almost no part in the real intellectual and educational work the university can achieve at its best is compounded by the emails of complaint about grades and the catching of students at plagiarizing and cheating.
At these moments--as in those when I suspect that I am the only one who had read the assignments or who has read any of the classics of the canon--I mourn just a little for the notion of the educated person and the liberal education that was once meant to create her.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Atheists and Christ

One of the classes I was assigned this semester was Twentieth Century Continental Philosophy. For non-philosophers it might not be obvious that contemporary philosophy has divided itself into two different traditions that, all in all, don't much talk to each other. Almost any philosopher you find teaching in a department anywhere in the US has been trained, unless she does history of philosophy, as an analytic philosopher. The Continental tradition is the dark, bad-poetry Other, that we are trained to ignore, scoff at, or try to forget. It is also the one that non-philosophers are much more likely to think of as contemporary or roughly contemporary philosophy. There you find Sartre and Camus and Heidegger and (shudder) Zizek. But, it has to be taught, and someone has to teach it. And, this year, that someone was me.

One thing that is notable about this tradition--though it doesn't greatly differentiate it from the analytic tradition--is that most of the Continentals are stridently atheistic. There's a good deal of "God is dead and we have killed Him," starting with dear old Nietzsche, but not ending there. And, this can be offputting for a lot of students, especially when I am yelling "God is dead" near the top of my lungs.

But what is also notable is the way that members of this tradition, Nietzsche among them, have more to say of value about Christ and the Christian idea (not so much Nietzsche there, but still) than the majority of stridently Christian thinkers. Nietzsche thinks of Christianity as a misnamed religion, because he can think of only one Christian, the one who was crucified. Camus speaks of the genius of Christianity in tying together heaven and earth, an incarnational theology from a non-religious man, and speaks solemnly of the feeling of abandonment on the Cross as the most profound moment of the Gospel narrative.

How much is lost when we fail to engage with those we disagree with, those whose worldviews are different to ours, those who start with assumptions we have already ruled out. And, how much that might be of value for our very own worldview.

In many ways, I am not a conventionally religious man; I am also not spiritual, because I have never understood what that was supposed to me, as a contrast to "religious." But, in other ways, I have a religious outlook, if not quite theistic. I can say though, I have never been as touched by some of the deepest beauties of religion as when reading the most strident atheists.