Monday, May 03, 2010

An Open Letter to An und fur sich

Given some of the comments in Anthony Paul Smith's recent post over at an und fur sich I thought it might be a good time to put this up.

As I have discussed in an earlier post I have returned to the theo-philosophical blogosphere. In my time off I have discovered the meaning of life . . . no really. Life is meant to be an act of worship (I'll leave how I understand that dangling for now). I am, God help me, actually trying to have this inform my thought and actions. So I have returned to reading many of my old favourites and in many instances I find great insight and challenge in their posts. In my year off I have seen an und fur sich become quite a little powerhouse blog. The contributors have accomplished high academic achievement and are beginning a promising publishing career. In addition to this they are working primarily in an area of great personal interest to me which is a rigorous engagement with biblical/theological tradition and contemporary (broadly) European philosophy. I linked to Adam K and Anthony P S's forthcoming works and read the brief descriptions on Amazon (I do not know how they personally feel about them).

An excerpt from Adam's description reads,

This is a new theory of the atonement, showing that the Christian account of salvation can only fully make sense if approached from a social-political angle.

Anthony's description reads,

This volume brings together a vanguard of scholars to ask what comes after the postsecular and the postmodern - that is, what is Continental philosophy of religion now? . . . The essays do not propose a new orthodoxy but set the stage for new debates by reclaiming a practice of philosophy of religion that recovers and draws on the insights of a distinctly modern tradition of Continental philosophy, confronts the challenge of rethinking the secular in the light of the postsecular event, and calls for a move from strictly critical to speculative thought in order to experiment with what philosophy can do.

These descriptions as well as the sites general academic engagement raise many questions for me as I return to reading and reflecting on them. I am interested in hearing Adam and Anthony and anyone else at aufs speak about the driving/compelling motivation of their projects (speaking more broadly then just their posts and publications). To me these descriptions and many of the posts imply the themes of production and speed, themes inherent to the academic process generally. We always need to be thinking of what is next and what is new (even if that means 'recovering' what has been neglected or forgotten). This is a pervasive phenomenon, throwing new at the market and seeing what will catch. I cannot actually imagine that there is a 'new' theory of the atonement out there and if there is then I cannot imagine it is true (but I will not stake my reputation on that statement). Actually as I think about it I am not sure the atonement can be theorized at all! And I read Anthony's description as a response to the growing trend of dissatisfaction with movements like RadOx (of course it is larger than that) which continues to strike me as academic bandwagonry (Let's get on board with Derrida then push him off, let's get on board with Milbank then push him off, let's get on board with Zizek and then . . . ). I know it is all more subtle and sophisticated than this but it is hard to deny this in academic 'progress' . . . until the renaissance of Derrida or Neo-postmodernism . . . oh the things we have forgotten and misunderstood!).

I am also quite sure that the hope of the folk at aufs is not simply to feed the academic machine (though I know that is part of professional development and advancement) and so I want invite you to speak about both your motivation and their hopes, to what end is your overall striving aimed and why do you think this form will facilitate that. Or do you have any aspirations that are not professionally driven. And I would ask you do this in a spirit of openness in a way that does not reflect the expectations of the academic/intellectual life. I am not asking you to defend anything (my above statements where not meant to be criticisms just reminders of a larger issue that spurred this post). I am not concerned that you sound rigorous and robust and all those other intellectually driven adjectives. I just want to hear from you because as far as I know I respect and even admire you and what they seem to be trying to do (and of course more than a little jealous of where you are and where I am not). But the problem is that I am not sure just what you are trying to do because I see it is all so shrouded in the mist of academic/intellectual protocol.

I know that in a sense this is a very narrow minded invitation and naive and perhaps it does not deserve a response. But I simply cannot shake the nagging question of why. Is there a hope for a better humanity in all this? Is there a belief in the pursuit of truth? Is there an attempt to honour God? Is this simply a personal preference, disposition or pleasure? Is this the result of chain of circumstance? A neurotic or compulsive conclusion to family and environmental upbringing? Is this the adventurers thrill of exploring the unknown? Addiction to thought? I am not kidding here I really would like to know. As I near as I can figure out at this time I pursued these things initially out of a response to God as I knew God manifested in the forms that seemed to come most naturally to me and in time there was increase of personal drive for achievement and status as well as a continued pleasure/obsession in the process (I have yet to uncover the family baggage that has played into all this other than this sort of pursuit affords me the opportunity to be less social).

You (and heck, anyone else reading this) are welcome to respond here or at your own site.You are of course welcome to ignore this . . . no offence. But I do find these communities helpful and at times even inspiring and so I ask you not pass over this invitation too lightly.

So to recap. I am drawn (uneasily) to aufs in the same manner that I am drawn (uneasily at times) to their interests. In the interest of understanding myself (I cannot always understand why I give it such value but I cannot help from partaking either) and your project(s) I would like hear about how you came to the place they find themselves, why the persist in it, and where they hope it leads (other than having the future fuck you! . . . although they can unpack that for me too if they want).

After sitting with this post for a little while (as well as receiving courage and clarity from Mark Manolopoulos at Church and PoMo) I would have to say that I still pursue many of the same interests for pleasure, an adventurers pleasure that endures obstacles and hardships (and impenetrable texts) in the nagging belief that there may be something beautiful on the other side. And in honesty I still pursue these interests because I believe in some manner I can a better grasp or gain advantage in (for better or worse) the world around me.


Anthony Paul Smith said...

I find this a very strange thing. Why send an open-letter to us because of our academic publications? I am not a Christian, or at least I don't accept the idea that being a Christian is a radical thing to be, I have no idea what "life is meant to be an act of worship" means aside from seemingly a pious gloss to the difficulty of life. You say you don't expect us to defend ourselves, but what could you possibly do in a situation like this? Thankfully, I have nothing to defend. I have none of the Christian disdain for the future, for the new, nor do I think that academia necessarily prizes the new! One can't write a doctoral thesis on Laruelle and accept to get a job very easily. One can, however, write yet another exegetical PhD or focus on the works of Augustine and do quite well. I see a lot of projection that I just don't understand. I don't trade in bandwagonary, I find people interesting and others disinteresting, I have reasons for it, some of them are better than others, but I didn't push Milbank off the bandwagon. I came to reject his thought after considering it and working with it (why is everyone so pissed that we don't like RO?!). It's the same thing with the mainstream of Continental philosophy of religion, so much of it is uncritical piety.

Why do you care why we do it? I could of course offer you a whole host of platitudes, but the truth is I do it and I try to do it well. Why do I have to examine my motivations for you? What kind of confessional is this? Is there any grace in it?

Adam Kotsko said...

Atonement is one of the major areas of Christian theology that hasn't been officially "settled." Anselm's theory, for example, which is the basis for what is now the most accepted and familiar theory in the West, was a major innovation when he wrote it.

Atonement is also one of the greatest areas of present controversy in theology, as feminists and other liberation theologians have shown that the common view has had some really perverse and harmful consequences. Most often, these theologians reject the tradition and want to base their views off the synoptic gospels or even off their idea of the historical Jesus. I'm trying to show that the dominant view of atonement actually betrays the most fundamental insights of the tradition, which I establish through close readings of patristic and medieval figures. So my goal is actually to make the tradition available in a new way to theologians who have very good reasons to be suspicious of it -- not to innovate for its own sake.

A fuller description of the project is linked from my CV page on the blog -- I don't expect you to be an Adam Kotsko scholar before commenting on such things, but reading a readily-available full description would've been more fair than basing your critique on a one-sentence summary.

We appear to differ on what theology should be about -- just as Anthony and I differ from each other. Your view of theology seems to me to be wrong, but it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I don't know why you should feel uneasy about reading the blog of people with a different view or people who occasionally criticize views like yours.

If you do feel uncomfortable, I'm not sure why that's my fault. I'm certainly not sure why this "open letter" was necessary or, more generally, why we're always regarded as particularly problematic among theology blogs just because we're not overtly pious.

Overall: theology is a form of critical thought, and we are obviously making every effort to make our thought available to the general public. You don't need to know my "motivations," and any "motivation" would probably wind up being as reductive as saying that Augustine's theology was all just a way of dealing with his repressed sexuality. Read our stuff and be convinced or not. It tells you all you need to know about us in this regard.

Alex said...

I am surprised at the very existence of this letter- I have little idea what possessed you to write it, and have little clue to what you meant to achieve by it and have no idea why you thought this was brave or a difficult thing to do. To me, it seems that of all the themes you could have criticised on AUFS, you have chosen to critcise something they don't actually have - an obsession with market based novelty.

Adam's work isn't, to mind, about some kind of capitalist shock of the new, but a creative re-appropriation of a complex tradition, which he has pointed out above. I don't see therefore how this fits into your critique. Anthony's is a crystalisation of things that have been going for a while. Consider for a second how you have to write blurbs and how they are supposed to incite the reader to buy it. You are rather judging a book by its back cover, neither book you have read. Pondering a piece of superfluous verbage as if it were substance while asking for some confession of moral substance from your interlocutors is very strange. Particularly when, in successive posts about the academy, Adam and others have written very much against the marketisation the academy and indeed it is something all authors on the blog are committed to. And I certainly am, considering my whole work is on opposing the reduction of all things to the market.

Overall, and I speak here for myself and Anthony who I know well, but also for Adam, who I know only fairly well via internet correspondance. I can't think of a group of scholars who could not be less committed to following the vacuity of intellectual fashion. For example, consider Anthony's very cool reaction to recent trends in continental thought that cluster around the banner 'speculative realism'. Adam remains interested in Derrida, who is considered poisonous by the vanguard of continental thought, as is most stuff under the banner of postmodernism these days, which I personally believe shouldn't all be junked in a fit of shedding 'correlationism'. Anthony still write on Deleuze and in particular a rather unpopular vitalist reading of Deleuze that is rather disliked. The idea that the authors of AUFS have jumped on a series of band wagons is remarkably ill founded and I don't really know where you have got this impression from.

I must say there is quite a bit I actually find quite insulting in your letter, stuff which is pretty harsh to be honest. Condemning them/us with such harshness as "do you have any aspirations that are not professionally driven" is a gross insult - painting those writing there as pure careerists. If they/we/I are careerists, they have so far not done too good a job of it!

As Anthony says, I don't see how spilling forth a host of platitudes, even sincerely meant ones, will change any of the discomfort you feel, as if once placed under such axioms the thought is no longer seemingly morally obnoxious to you - if we all said "relax guy, its all towards the beauty of truth and to the glory of God and a church community founded upon the most intense purity love of human love" how would it change anything except at the level of ridiculous superficiality? Would you find a new found respect for the blog by virtue of some very quickly dispensed with comforting words and feel you could justify your 'attraction' to its themes? All of us are capable of such things, and probably could summon them up at a moments notice and doubtless in real life we sometimes do. Perhaps rather than having to have thoughts framed by a series of these platitudes (which we are all capable of) before they are considered, you should just consider the thought on its own merits.

In short then, this is ridiculously over wrought and based on a description of the subject broached that seems not to conform to its reality. I don't get it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for getting back to me promptly. I'll just try to clarify a few things by way of direct response.

First, Adam I definitely should have done more investigating into your own projects as what I do respect is your interest in making these things quite public . . . I can be very impatient. So I do apologize for that and in no way assumed to reduce your work to a line on Amazon.

Why send the letter indeed! I did not assume any of you were Christians or had any motivation similar to my own. That, however, is part of my interest.
This letter is projection. I am going through changes in my life and I see the work being done at aufs as in some way one possible mirror of what my future could have been had not life/God/chance intervened any number of times. For me the question of why is huge. If it is not for you (at least in this forum) then that I was fine. I am just curious.
Many of my comments were geared towards my thoughts on the academy more broadly and I can understand your comment that in fact the academy may not actually be as welcoming to the new as I may think. Thanks for that.
No I am not pissed that you don't like RO. I am likely wrong in the assertions I made in that area.
Why do I care? Like I said in many ways I still wish I could be doing things at the level you all are doing them so I wanted to gain some perspective as someone who will likely never enter into that realm. Would I become completely disillusioned? Would I lose the love and purpose I had for doing it? etc.
And I really should explain what I mean by the meaning of life. It is related to my reading of Revelation and could probably be considered a little Yoderian. It is how I understand reality.
Uncritical piety. I will have to see how that applies to me. It may well hit the nail on the head . . . just trying to figure it out.

Thanks for clarifying your project on atonement. I am sure I could have done that myself had I been more thorough . . . again sorry.
The comment on discomfort is something I will have to think about. I don't feel uncomfortable with what you are doing. Again, I really do respect what I have read. I certainly don't assume that all of you at aufs are working from the same premise or project. It is again as Anthony pointed out, a projection. I, myself (no fault of your own!), have discomfort and so I am trying to sort that out and thought perhaps your comments could help. I can't emphasize enough that I do find some of these blog communities actually helpful. I was not aware that you are received as problematic for being unpious. Piety really wasn't my concern here. I just wanted to understand a little better about what and why you were all up to.
But I can see perhaps a little clearly now that there would be no reason why you would not already be saying all you thought would be appropriate to say in the medium you've chosen.

Thanks guys. I still want to welcome further responses from you or anyone else.

I think it might be helpful for me to post in the future about my concept of worship. Hopefully that will help me clarify my own position.

Unknown said...

Sorry Alex yours came up just as I posted mine. I will respond to you shortly . . . first day back to work from parental leave . . . don't have the flexibility I used to!

Adam Kotsko said...

So as I understand it, you seem to be uncomfortable with the distorting effects of academia on theology and/or philosophy conceived as "meaning-seeking" activities. That is a very pressing question for all academics in this area -- and all interested parties more generally, since so many of these discussions are routed through academia (in part simply because academic institutions are providing the resources necessary to publish serious theological or philosophical work).

I can also understand the reasons our site might become a particular flash-point for your reflections in this regard, as we have been very fortunate lately in terms of being able to get published, etc. -- particularly in light of the fact that we are enjoying some degree of success in a path that you apparently have abandoned. It has also been my experience that those who leave academia for one reason or another will often go through a period of being very negative about academia in general -- a necessary step in many respects given how academic institutions and training condition people to view any non-academic path as failure or compromise.

So pointing to a group of young academics who seem to be having a good run and asking, "BUT WHY?!" is something I can understand. I just have to say, BUT WHY NOT?! I have thought deeply about questions that I think are important and I want to share my thoughts with others. Academia is a great platform for getting stuff out. Teaching is (or at least can be) a fun way to earn a living.

There are some things that are artificial and distorting about academia, but I've tried my best to act with integrity in following my own sincere interests and dealing with the questions I think are most important, and so far a decent path has opened up for me. Perhaps it will close down. Perhaps I won't ultimately succeed in the academic game and will have to find another line of work. If so, I'll still continue to read and think and write and find ways to get my stuff published -- as indeed I am already seeking venues outside of the academic structure (the blog, various articles in general readership publications, and my forthcoming awkwardness book, which is not going to be published by an academic press). My goals for my thinking and writing will remain the same whether I'm in academia or not: to think through the problems that I find to be most important and to share those thoughts with others.

That is the most charitable response I can come up with for an open letter that I still regard as being very intrusive and ill-conceived. I hope it answers some of the core questions that motivated it.

Unknown said...

Anthony asks if there is any grace in this? Adam, I think you have offered some. Thank-you.
Again, I plead impatience and my own inner unresolved thinking for this letter. But this again is why I did it. You have been gracious enough to help in the process.
I will likely offer further (hopefully better conceived) reflections about this in the future.

Unknown said...

Indeed, Adam, you are a child of God, even if He is dead.

Brad said...

In many respects, IF, of the people who blog at / administer AUFS I probably more closely resemble your own self-description. I am only very nominally in the academic game at all. I publish occasionally, and even may eventually have a book out, if the publisher ever gets around to doing so. But, I've more or less given up on what might look like professional success in academia - namely, a full-time job. My productive output pales next to Adam's, and I'm confident that Anthony is driven enough to leave me in his wake as well. In a way, even, perhaps I'm jealous -- but not of their "success," such as it is, but of how driven & productive they are. (That's an important distinction. Publishing is no success in itself, as it is probably the least difficult element of academia to crack.)

So for the most part, I am out of academia; and yet, all the same, I am still very much engaged with it. You would, I suppose, ask then, "WHY?" But I think this is in fact a deeply unhelpful question. It's important to remember that it is one of those questions that children ask repeatedly of the most mundane things, which end up driving their parents insane. Moreover, it is esp. unhelpful when it comes to self-examination, because it is a bottomless hole. The bildungsroman, as it were, will never be complete if "Why" is the guiding question. The untold layers of motivation are too thick, and the narrative will suffer if you (a) try to tell it all or (b) try to tell a part of it. (Those are the only two options, no?) Perhaps a better question, for the sake of our jealous, is "How?" -- how does one manage productivity in the face of everything else that life requires of you? amidst the professional and personal frustrations? in the light of Christians who distrust you for speaking about religion irreligiously, and non-Christians who distrust you for speaking about religion at all? With respect to my friends and co-bloggers at AUFS, this, I think, is a far more valuable question.

Unknown said...


Finally read your comment. I am guilty on practically all accounts. But I am not guilty of looking for any kind of doxological refrain that I can join in on. While I may be jealous of your attire at times I do not confuse the potential differences between us.
But I do mean that I am guilty of how I framed this letter though I no way regret it as this brief exchange has been wonderfully helpful which is all I was hoping for.
So again please accept my apologizes for the thinly veiled and poor criticisms of AUFS specifically. Though I was hoping to create some space for conversation apart from those pressures and expectations which I sense are felt by all (and this is where my letter could have been constructed much better)

Thanks for your comment. It helped take the sting out of Adam's comment on my 'abandoning' my path. I am still not sure what to make of it. I suppose it is true but to do otherwise would mean greater acts of abandonment in my life. I do not feel as though I need the academic system to pursue my interests only that I feel saddened that I will likely be unable to engage vigorously in many of these conversations as I will not know particular figures and concepts and will not have the time to be 'up on them'. This is something I will need to get over.

I do, however, defend my question . . . why it is as you described it but so is my concept of sacredness (the empty space between the cherubs wings) and I will try and honour that as well.

Thanks again.

dbarber said...

What I find interesting about this open letter is that it at least raises the question of desire. What does one want when one writes? But how could one know without doing the writing? And furthermore: What does one want from oneself when one asks what others want? What does one want those others to say?

I raise these questions not to be superficially evasive, but because I think they are what need to be addressed in situations such as this one. (For my own part, though I have guesses about what I want, a certain asceticism demands that I not share those with myself, much less others.)

Ben Myers said...

I know I've come too late to this discussion. But FWIW, I reckon good scholarship is its own justification. All of us have complex (sometimes inscrutable) motivations for writing: whenever I publish something, I'm earning research funds from my institution; I'm also trying to acquire a certain intellectual capital for my own future use; I'm trying to have a small influence on a specialised sphere of discourse; maybe I'm also secretly dreaming of a writerly immortality, or trying to placate an internalised father-figure who drives me to go on writing; often I'll be trying to attack a particular person or intellectual position; or if I'm lonely, I might be trying to win admiration and friendship, maybe even get laid; and of course, as a theologian, I'm no doubt also hoping to have some kind of influence on the thinking and practice of the church.

But even though these diverse motivations may be interesting, I don't think any of them should be a standard by which the writing is judged. A piece of scholarship should simply be judged according to how good or how bad it is.

If we really wanted all writing to pass through the fire of purity-of-motives, even our greatest literature would be lost in the conflagration.

Unknown said...

Thanks Ben. I do essentially agree that scholarship should stand on its own except that it cannot as it is upheld (or pushed down) by some larger structure . . . which was one part that I was hoping to explore (as ill-formed as it may have been).

And again, I was not really looking for pure (or pious for that matter! . . . I'll make sure I never bring that topic up and AUFS party) motives this post was driven primarily by two interests. First was to work through some of my own stuff and second I have a bit of fascination with many of folk at AUFS and so it was to see where something like this would go with them.

In retrospect perhaps the 'why' question is as uninteresting as Brad suggests. Though I think the question can come to a head at different times in life (as in my case).
And given the proper framing can be illuminating because we all appear to live with seemingly involuntary 'drives' and I would maintain that we would do well to have explored what possible articulation can come from sitting with them.

I suppose another irritation is the sense that intellectual discourse and contemporary writing tends to be reduced to cleverness and skepticism. If these are people's primary frameworks so be it but they are the most tiring after awhile . . . and there is far too much cleverness in the blogosphere, as elsewhere (no fingers pointing directly this time!).

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should learn a lesson from the life and teaching of Jesus.

He was a renegade teacher and prophet who lived and taught outside of the then ecclesiastical establishment. Which is one of the reasons that they colluded to have Jesus executed. He was a threat to their institutional power and privileges.

Plus look at the lives of some of the great Saints in the Catholic church. Many of them were NOT welcome by the the then ecclesiastical establishment. Indeed they were oft times persecuted, imprisoned and even executed by the "authorities".

And what about the Holy Fools of Christ (as described in Holy Fools by John Saward) Such wandering mad/holy men and women were a common feature in church history. They too were not welcomed by the establishment.

The key founding figures of the Reformation were not very popular with the catholic establishment.

And how many "heretics" (and "apostates" have been executed by the church altogether.

The law of "blaspmemy" too.

Anonymous said...

And of course the Anabaptists were slaughtered like vermin with the approval/command of both the protestant and catholic "authorities".

Unknown said...


I am assuming you are linking over here from Faith and Theology. Ben comments that my interest is in AUFS seeming lack of explicit association with the church. This was not really my interest.

Ben Myers said...

Yeah sorry, I didn't mean to misrepresent you — I guess I was just using your post for my own purposes.

Max Kennel said...

Weighing in I should say that (going back to the first comment) Christians as I understand them do not have disdain for the future or the new (fundamentalists aside).

Secondly, I appreciate David's letter for all that it is worth and I think that his critique of neopostmodern bandwagonry is important although I don't see aufs as being guilty of this.

Third, I wonder what it is that was confusing to aufs about the open letter? It looks to me like simple curiosity (that I share) on behalf of David regarding the motives of Adam and co. I am curious as to why this has struck such a nerve (ex: 'why do you care?' - AP Smith 5:44 AM) and why there is some seeming hostility ('You don't need to know my motivations' - A Kotsko 7:39).

As someone who appreciates both IndieFaith and AUFs I suppose all that I would like to say is that we should not confuse questions with accusations.

Unknown said...

For anyone still picking up this comment feed check out Graham Harman's much more thoughtful approach to circling around a similar question.

Rich Griese said...

I am currently reading Walter Bauer's _Orthodoxy and Hersey in earliest christianity_ at the moment, and am interested in meeting others that are also interested in the study of earliest christianity. I can be contacted at


Bruce said...

IF: I don't think I've come across your blog before until it was mentioned on AUFS, but I want to say that the question of why is utterly fascinating to me. I think Pascal nailed it when he wondered about the human inability to stay put in one's room. It is as if we seem to think life is something we must go through, no questions asked.