© Merold Westphal and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Westphal was interviewed by Alexandra Campbell on November 2nd, 2012
Merold Westphal is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. He is the author of a number of books on the philosophy of religion including God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, Transcendence and Self-Transcendence and Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Throughout his career, he has been an active member of SPEP and APA and is the editor of the Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I began college expecting to go into pastoral ministry. As my academic interests developed, I thought I’d get a doctorate after seminary, and then teach in a seminary. When I got a fellowship that made it make sense to go directly to graduate school in philosophy, I did. I then went directly into college/university teaching, though without leaving my interests in theology behind. So I think of myself as professional philosopher and an amateur theologian. The decision was a conscious one, but one that emerged gradually over a period of years.
Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
My primary undergrad mentor was Art Holmes at Wheaton College (Illinois). From him I learned that philosophy can be faith understanding and that while there is nothing properly called Christian philosophy, there are and should be Christian philosophers. I also learned that philosophical reflection is perspectival and that secular philosophers are also engaged in faith seeking understanding, although their “faith” or presupposed perspective is not a religious a priori.
My primary mentor in graduate school was John Smith. From him I learned the importance of being philosophically multi-lingual, by which I mean not French and German, important as they are, but knowing the languages of a variety of different approaches, methods, perspectives in philosophy, so that they can cross fertilize on another in one’s own work.
In your experience, how has the role of university professor “evolved” since you were an undergraduate student?
The only significant change that comes to mind is that the academy takes more seriously than it used to the media and various dimensions of pop culture and, more generally, in the humanities and social sciences, dimensions of human experience that were not previously deemed of academic significance. But the relation between teacher and student, undergraduate or graduate, seems to me largely unchanged. In some cases this goes beyond the strictly academic to friendship and a kind of pastoral relation, while never confusing oneself with a professional counselor or therapist.
The early stages of your career were spent at Yale University and your latter days have been spent at Fordham where you became Distinguished Professor of Philosophy in 1997. Do you feel there is a difference between the academic experience and atmosphere of Ivy League and non Ivy League institutions?
The most noticeable difference between Yale undergrads and those I’ve taught at Hope College, SUNY Purchase, and Fordham (Protestant, secular, and Catholic non-Ivy League schools) is the quality of the freshmen. The former are not only terribly bright but in many ways highly experienced. I’ve often said that the Yale students didn’t undergo qualitative change in their four years, academically speaking, but just added more arrows to their quiver. Needless to say, they are great fun to teach. But there is a different satisfaction watching students at other institutions for whom the college years are, as they were for me, years of qualitative change as new worlds are opened up and new horizons explored. By the time they are seniors, the very best of them are as good as those in the Ivy League schools.
You write at one point that you believe ‘philosophy is faith seeking understanding’. One can apply this easily to education, in that one is always seeking to understand more as part of the continuing search for truths. Is there an element of faith involved in the relationship between professor and student, in that the student has faith in the professor as a guide towards understanding?
Yes, but it has to be earned. Students more or less automatically trust that their teachers are in some significant measure experts, even if they are graduate teaching fellows. But trust in them as a person, which gives a different dimension to the learning process, has to be evoked and earned. This begins with the ability to excite the students about the subject matter, but goes beyond this, at least sometimes. Of course, personal trust is a two way street, and the teacher needs to show trust in the students by taking their ideas as seriously as possible.
What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts young scholars should be reading today?
Love your students, even when they aren’t entirely loveable. You’re in the classroom for their sake and not primarily for your own. Don’t let the need to publish so you won’t perish become all consuming and turn you into a paper producing machine.
What to read? A sociologist once told me he never read anything more than 15 years old. But in the humanities there are classics, and one should immerse oneself in these, and not only in the historical or topical area of your specialization. It is also very important to read as much as possible outside your discipline, both fiction and non-fiction.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, ‘departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.’ This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?
I don’t see the information revolution as being a serious a crisis as the economic situation, and that in two dimensions: the lesser availability of financial support for both public and private institutions and the increasing pressure to make college education primarily a matter of job training. The idea of a general, humanistic education is under pressure, and I hope that with economic recovery there will be a recovery of a broader vision of post-secondary education.
Let us move to a different institution: that of religion. Is religion similarly at risk in this age of interruption? Is there a danger that people are beginning to rely upon the Modern Scriptures of social media – a sort of theology of technology perhaps – where they see their online existence as the dominant phenomenological influence in their experience of self and world?
Yes, but the explosion of the internet has only intensified what the movies and television have already done. Let me give you two examples. A movie buff friend of mine told me that she had come to think that only sex outside of marriage could be exciting. Then she reflected for a moment and said: Or maybe I watch too many movies. I have sometime asked my undergraduate students which plays a larger role in shaping their lives and self-understanding: their religious beliefs, their academic experience, or their popular culture. They think I’m crazy that I have to ask (which I don’t – I intend the question as a rhetorical one). They assure me it isn’t even a close competition, which is what I had expected.
In an interview with the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture you state that ‘scripture cannot be normative for philosophy’. However, your own work seems to directly contest such exclusion, particularly with your concept of ‘Atheism for Lent’ where you suggest the undertaking of ‘serious and sustained reading of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as a Lenten penance’. In so doing, reading becomes an act leading towards ‘penitence, true sorrow for our sins’. What is particularly interesting here is that you describe these atheist thinkers as the ‘great modern theologians of original sin’, an intriguing inversion which allows for a dialogue to be formed between seemingly exclusive realms. Does this mean that the relationship between philosophy and scripture is thus less the case of scripture informing philosophy, and more of philosophy informing scripture in the ‘Modern’ age?
If I say we should believe thus and so because that is what the Bible teaches, I’m not doing philosophy but theology. That is the sense in which scripture cannot be normative for philosophy. But philosophy is perspectival and always draws on the pre-philosophical presuppositions we bring with us to philosophical reflection. Of course, these are subject to revision or replacement in the process of reflection, whether our starting point is religious or secular. But we always have to philosophize where we are (presently), and that is always somewhere in particular and never nowhere in general. So it is perfectly appropriate for Christians to draw on their Christian beliefs and experience, recognize that our starting points are always a matter of “faith” and not self-evident, incorrigible insight.
When I suggest atheism for Lent I mean to say, that what is often called the “hermeneutics of suspicion” in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud 1) seems to me as a critique of Christianity to be all too true all too much of the time, 2) to have predecessors in the Bible and various theological traditions, and 3) to be vulnerable to being translated into theological language. This ungodly trinity can be called secular theologians of original sin because the way they expose the misuse of religion in the service of unholy interests, points to what in theology is called sin. One important result of thinking this way is that we can see that there can be religious motives for developing such critiques. Kierkegaard, for example, with his “attack upon Christendom”, that runs throughout his writings. Secular thought has no monopoly, and Marx, for example, can be accused of plagiarism for not footnoting Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, etc, as critic of the way religious is used to justify unjust social practices. By the way, I’ve learned that a number of churches have developed Lenten study series based on Suspicion and Faith, wherein I suggest atheism for Lent.
An admirable aspect of your concept ‘Atheism for Lent’ is its highly interdisciplinary approach, yet it seems to draw short at namely philosophical works. In such an ‘age of information’ we are surrounded by increasingly astounding scientific discoveries – for instance the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the so-called ‘God Particle’, earlier this year. Can and do scientific works inform readings of scripture in the same way as Marx or Nietzsche do?
Yes, but maybe not literally “in the same way” as Marx and Nietzsche do. I haven’t read enough or thought enough about this to say anything more about this other than two points. We’re all glad that Galileo prevailed over the church of his day. Second, the case with Darwin is a bit more complicated, since in the hands of some evolutionists his theory is taken to be a complete explanation of the origin of human life. Galileo was content to let physics tell us “how the heavens go”.
And finally, what are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a book about the concept of faith in three of Kierkegaard’s most widely read pseudonyms: Silentio (Fear and Trembling), Climacus (Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript), and Anti-Climacus (Sickness Unto Death and Practice in Christianity). It includes discussion of the relation of faith to reason and to the passions, our affective life.
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