Seems like Straw to Me: On Gary Gutting’s Talking God

The School of Athens, Raphael, 1511

By Ed Simon

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” – Henry David Thoreau

“If those who do not possess knowledge avoid the scholarly discussion, disagreement will end.” – Al-Ghazali

Thomas Aquinas, he whose girth was so great that the monks had to outfit him with a special desk to accommodate the wide berth of his belly, could supposedly levitate. Amazing to contemplate, especially considering his heft, but then again what is a miracle but faith made manifest before our very eyes? And this strange image – a man of consummate rationality capable of such a wonder – is as miraculous as the feat itself. Almost as heavy as Aquinas was his opus: the Summa Theologica, all axiom and argument and postulate and principle, the greatest compendium and synthesis of medieval scholastic philosophy ever published.

Aquinas’ philosophy was born in discussion. His philosophical system germinated in dialogue with pupils, fellow monks and schoolmen, and with the texts of great sages like Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, and of course Aristotle. If this Doctor of the Church’s philosophy was based in disputation, then appropriately enough his career was also ended by a discussion (in a manner). In 1273 he had a vision of a levitating crucifix, where Christ asked the philosopher what reward he wished for all of his admirable writings concerning the faith, to which Aquinas responded, “Nothing but you, Lord.” On December 6th of that same year, as he administered the Eucharist, Aquinas fell into a religious ecstasy. While in a beatified, lackadaisical haze, his amanuensis Reginald of Piperno asked when they would return to dictation. Aquinas, giving no details of the experience, answered “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” And so the philosopher became a saint; all that had been discussed in thousands of pages and millions of words was finally to be passed over in silence. For Aquinas the ultimate answer had no verbalization, the discussion had finally ended.

Yet, nearly 744 years after Aquinas fell silent, that practice which claims its love of wisdom continues to operate primarily in the medium of language. Ample evidence of philosophy’s continuing infatuation with discussion as a mode of inquiry is on display in Garry Gutting’s collection of interviews, Talking God: Philosophers on Belief. Western philosophy has seemingly always prided itself on being a project built upon an edifice of dialogue. Call it what you like – debate, discussion, or dialectic –conversation has been the central medium of philosophical discourse since the Platonic dialogue. In Plato’s model, philosophical truth is formulated as a negotiation between two partners, a process by which the questioner and the questioned can arrive at ever greater degrees of truth (even while unconvincing claims to intellectual humility on behalf of the questioner in a Platonic dialogue make clear that it’s often less a negotiation than a browbeating). In Platonic dialogues the dominant interlocutor is, of course, Socrates, and the Socratic Method has often been the standard bearer of philosophical conversational practice. This emphasis on exchange has of course always been one of philosophy’s great strengths, but arguably also one of its weaknesses, especially when people take on the religious. In approaching the ineffable, indescribable experience can often by a more potent guide than rational discussion.

The academic discipline of philosophy has a vested interest in preserving an image of itself as rooted in conversation: Philosophers debate one another now as they debated then, they debate their ancestors as their progeny will debate them. So goes and will go the canon. It’s a flattering pretension, this idea that the field has an unbroken connection back to the earliest days of pre-Socratic philosophy. But Philosophy (at least Anglo-American analytical philosophy) is, at this point, the one discipline among the humanities that has avoided the historicizing, cultural analysis, and acknowledgement of the ideological problems with canonicity with which other disciplines have grappled since the 1970s. This is a not-terribly well-kept secret for people who have followed how those very same disciplinary customs have in part contributed to institutionalized sexism (and other forms of bias) within scholarship. Some conservatives bemoan the supposed obsession with race, class, and gender in much of the academy, but those critics miss the point. Historicizing our own disciplines is crucial if we’re to stay honest about our own biases and subconscious historical influences. That some philosophers resist historicizing their own field– and considering the ways that history intersects with race, class, and gender – is to ultimately resist self-knowledge about their disciplinary field; ironic, as self-knowledge is supposedly one of the central aims of philosophical discourse. In English departments the Author may be dead, but down the hall in Philosophy the Great Man is still plugging away at his logical proofs.

Philosophers attached to the idea of their work as continuous, ahistorical conversation, refuse to see that their discipline is as historically or culturally contingent as every other field of the humanities. Most are not interested in questions about how Immanuel Kant was influenced by his Lutheran upbringing, or how ancient Greek philosophy bears more similarity to some kind of occult mysticism than it does to our modern conception of rationality. No, for my straw-philosophy professor the discipline has always been a coterie of (overwhelmingly) men imagine they are part of a 2,500 year discussion about what is true, beautiful, and good. My undergraduate philosophy intro even titled itself “Beginning the Conversation,” as if all of the disparate threads of what’s been called “philosophy,” done by all of the divergent figures we’ve called “philosophers,” were at some Platonic 3A.M eternal bullshit session in the sky that we could stumble into with a six-pack and a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. For a certain type of student – frequently male – it’s a pedagogical model that can be alluring, flattering our egos by making us members of some sort of Platonic University. But the difficulty of such a position, attractive though it may be, is that it obscures the culturally contingent vagaries of philosophy’s evolution. Far be it from me to suggest that a discipline whose very name is “Love of wisdom” could be more forthcoming about the ways in which the field intersects with history and culture.

These problems are very much on display in Notre Dame Philosophy professor Gutting’s illuminating, frustrating, enlightening, and obscuring collection of interviews. Composed of a series of email conversations that originally appeared in The New York Times’ frequently excellent Stone column, Talking God provides an overview of how a very small slice of philosophy of religion treats religious experience, and the collection appropriately enacts both the strengths and weaknesses of that discipline. Philosophy of religion, arguably of no fault of its own, is caught between theology on one hand and secular philosophy on the other. Perhaps its unavoidable for any discipline stuck between two other fields, but philosophy of religion is sort of a no-man’s land between those other two, and open to attack from both sides. As a result, there is a (not always unfruitful) ambiguity about what philosophy of religion is, strung between the apologetics of theology and the rationalist language of philosophy.

One of the biggest deficiencies in the field of philosophy – and it is mirrored in Gutting’s book – is a profound lack of diversity. There is an admirable overture to (some) intellectual variety, with philosophers ranging from the Neo-Calvinist scholastic Alvin Plantinga to the deconstructionist Catholic heretic John Caputo, and the volume engages with theological positions from the fairly orthodox to the explicitly atheistic. Yet the backgrounds of the scholars’ themselves are fairly uniform, and overwhelmingly male. Indeed out of the thirteen philosophers interviewed, Louise Antony is the only woman. The lack of equity in this regard is especially galling as Gutting even takes time to “interview” himself at one point – surely, in that case, there was space and time to find some more women philosophers working in the field of philosophy of religion? Whether this reflects an editorial oversight on Gutting’s part, or the overwhelming Old Boys Club nature of philosophy (where the percentage of female graduate students is lower than in many of the hard sciences) is an open question.

There is a bit more of an overture towards denominational variety in the volume, including interviews with the Jewish philosopher Howard Wettstein, the Hindu scholar Jonardon Ganeri, the Buddhist philosopher Jay Garfield, and Sajjad Rizvi who is both a scholar of Islamic studies and a practicing Muslim. Yet, there are major problems with how all of this material is presented, and at its worst there can be a whiff of tokenism implicit in the editorial methodology. This is manifested particularly in discussions of Islam, with Rizvi’s important contributions largely limited to simply discussing the obvious fact that Islamic theology deserves Western academic intellectual respect, with little detail given to the actual content of said theology. In fairness to both Gutting and Rizvi, even basic observations as to the intellectual legitimacy of Islamic philosophy are still an important point to make in our current political environment, but one does hope for more. This flaw points to the larger issue, which is that there are perilously few scholars of color interviewed in the book, an incredible oversight when one considers the rich vein of contribution Black philosophers and theologians have made to American pragmatism. Was Cornel West’s number absent from Gutting’s rolodex?

Gutting’s myopia regarding Islam (and other non-Christian faiths) leads him to some very problematic and incorrect conclusions. For instance, one could leave his book thinking that the major difference between Muslim and non-Muslim societies is that for the former, according to Gutting, there has been “no movement parallel to the Enlightenment [which has] established religious tolerance as a fundamental principle…. [because] Enlightenment tolerance primarily derives from a weakening of faith.” Conclusions such as this, as trite and popular as they may be, are bluntly simplistic, reductionist, ahistorical, and triumphalist. With a bit of disciplinary competition perhaps at the core of some of my critique, I can’t help but wonder if these sorts of erroneous claims are born from so much of philosophy’s steadfast avoidance of historicizing their own discipline (it’s telling that one of the most successful interviews in the book is with Daniel Garber, an historian of philosophy). In passages such as the previous one, Gutting reinscribes a Whig view of Enlightenment historiography, that old hobby-horse which imagines that history is simply an account of our previous dark age being supplanted by a glorious flowering of rationality in the eighteenth-century. But as satisfying as this simplistic view might be it ignores the Enlightenment’s concurrence alongside modern capitalism, the slave trade, and colonialism, and it obscures the complex interrelationships between “religion” and “secularism” during that time period. Indeed as regards western imperial ambition, how can one possibly castigate Islam for its supposed “lack of an Enlightenment” (a position which ignores the vastly complicated histories of Islamic secularism and materialism over the past millennia and a half) while overlooking the role that colonialism played in the development of Islamism?

Contemporary philosophy, with its too-frequent disdain for cultural context (perhaps still holding to that myth of system building from axiomatic first principles) often goes in for this type of thing, making broad generalizations about unfamiliar world-views under the guise of a sober and objective rationality. What’s even more shocking is that Gutting, as a Foucault scholar, would seem poised to avoid this particular pose, but Talking God frequently takes recourse to the most insular, provincial, and arrogant of disciplinary sins. Louise Antony even warns her interviewer that “It’s presumptuous to tell someone else why she believes what she believes – if you want to know, start by asking her,” but he roundly ignores her. For example, in the introduction he claims “that many religious believers don’t have an adequate understanding of the real truth of their religion.” Of course one is then lucky to have a philosophy professor to tell you what the “real truth” of your religion is! Such an assertion can’t help but leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Such a dismissive claim being made about believers in a volume of religious studies, theology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, or literary criticism would easily raise hackles. These disciplines largely recognize that believers constitute the actual heart of how religion is practiced and experienced, much more so than the arid proofs of an Anselm or Plantinga. These non-philosophers know that you will learn as much about Catholicism from a pious Italian grandma as you will from Aquinas. It’s not that all of academic philosophy is blind on this score, there are philosophers of religion who importantly ground their work in the actual lived reality of the faithful. Gutting gestures to as much when he observes that “The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience.” But as important as that observation is, you get no sense of it from Gutting’s actual interviews themselves, which too often replicate some of the structural problems of the discipline.

The lack of intellectual expansiveness isn’t limited to the bracketing out of religious experience. Gutting will also frequently discuss non-Abrahamic and non-Christian theologies purely through recourse to Christianity (and a heavily Protestant Christianity at that, despite Gutting himself being Catholic and a professor at Notre Dame). As a result he makes claims such as “Hinduism is perhaps most valuable to our thinking about religion as a counterexample to a standard Western picture of how religions develop,” which doesn’t take a religion of close to a billion adherents on its own terms; or he’ll talk about outdated historical concepts such as a supposed “medieval unity of faith,” which was ended by the Enlightenment, a reductionist understanding of both periods that is a few generations out of date. Ironically it is that positivism (itself a type of hermeneutically secular literalism) which often makes Gutting seemingly unable to depart from a definition of religion wholly indebted to its Protestant inheritance. It would seem that in a post-Wittenberg world we’re all Protestants now, and words like “faith,” “belief,” “practice,” and “ritual” have become severely limited in scope and connotation. But, it is in fact the tensions around these words where one sees the most fruitful space for creativity in both theological and philosophical questions.

As such, one thing Talking God does admirably accomplish is providing an overview of current opinion concerning theological issues within philosophy. A conflicted endeavor, since 60% of professional philosophers are self-declared atheists or agnostics (more than double the average for other academic fields). But what’s so fascinating isn’t that Talking God presents contemporary philosophers as dividing easily between believers and non-believers (as Gutting says of religion in general “believers are much further from faith and… nonbelievers much closer to it than they think”). The major schism doesn’t even fall along conventional analytical or continental divides (as a refresher, according to the standard joke: analytical philosophers know everything about nothing and continental philosophers know nothing about everything). Rather the biggest distinction between individual thinkers struck me as less the degree and conventionality of their fideism than how they define the God whose existence they’re debating. The biggest division is between thinkers who define God by positive characteristics, those within a “kataphatic tradition,” and philosophers who use a negative or paradoxical vocabulary, as in the “apophatic tradition” (I should note that Gutting never uses these terms himself). There is more similarity between the atheism of Antony and Philip Kitcher and the Calvinism of Plantinga than between Plantinga and Caputo’s paradoxical, deconstructionist, almost mystical version of via negativa Christianity. Whether one believes in God or not isn’t the issue here, the question is how does one define the being that one then does or does not believe in?

It is with the apophatic faith that I draw the most intellectual sympathy myself. Caputo’s post-structuralist “weak theology,” which is strongly indebted to Jacques Derrida is, to my mind, the most profound current of contemporary theology, and Caputo remains one of the finest theological minds today. When Gutting describes Caputo as an “avowed, if unorthodox, Catholic” I think “Me too!,” and when Caputo says of Derrida that the French philosopher is “a slightly atheistic quasi-Jewish Augustinian,” I respond “Hell, that sounds like me as well!” He avoids placement in the comforting confines of Huston Smith-style WASPy Protestant liberalism, emphasizing that he is “not resurrecting the old comparative religion thesis… Different traditions contain different desires, promises, memories, dreams, futures, a different sense of time and space. Nothings says that underneath they are all the same.” Rather what Caputo emphasizes is how the incompleteness of language gestures towards a sacred beyond mere words, demonstrating the fallibility of syllogistically approaching questions of divinity in the manner of Plantinga.

For the kataphatic thinker, faith must be tamed by preposition, axiom, and conclusion. But faith cannot be reduced to holding onto the veracity of unproven propositions with utmost conviction. Often orthodoxy and orthopraxy are set in distinction, but ultimately faith itself is a practice, which is why the medieval understood it to be a gift. Faith is a way of holding yourself in the world rather than a set of beliefs about the world. That’s why faith is so difficult for so many of us. Belief is easy, faith is hard. Whatever Luther’s intent, since Wittenberg our popular definition of the word has mutated, to where faith is now popularly defined as holding doctrinal claims to be true regardless of evidence. Yet faith and belief are not synonyms, nor is faith reducible to a type of knowledge. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for and the evidence for things unseen, but crucially it is also the capacity to dwell amongst those unseen things as well, to be able to carve a space from paradox in which you are able to pray. Faith is a belief that untrue things are true, faith is to believe beyond truth or falsehood, for accuracy has nothing to do with faith. As Gutting inquires of Caputo, “the propositions that express faith aren’t what’s interesting or important about religion.”

As a story: I dimly remember having a debate once with a rather evangelical believer. And I asked, “If I could give you absolute, empirical, objective proof that Jesus Christ had not lived, was not crucified, and was not resurrected, would you lose your faith in salvation through Christ’s sacrifice?” And, after quibbling over the possibility that such certain proof could be found, he admitted that such a demonstration would destroy his faith. “But then,” I said as a man of no real faith myself, “how can you say that you ever really had faith to begin with?”

For a faith that can so easily be slayed by proof is not really faith, but rather just a hypothesis about reality. And that sort of cheap faith, like any other sort of hypothesis, could always potentially be disproven. The god of the philosophers is of course not the God of revealed religion. Philosophy, as enamored as it remains with the logical law of non-contradiction, cannot fathom that the God of revealed religion need not even be a god that actually exists in order to still be a God that saves and gives life meaning. Analytical philosophy approaches God with syllogism, but God can only ever be approached with paradox. We can assent to belief while dissenting on the issue of God’s existence – there is no need to tilt at windmills, for when it comes to God, when it comes to the very Ground of Being, the distinction between belief and existence should be irrelevant. Wettstein, who though firmly within the analytical tradition exhibits a deep and profound understanding of God as mediated through the orthopraxy of the Talmud, explains that “The perceptions and understandings of the religious practitioner are more like the outpourings of a poet than they are like theoretical pronouncements,” to which Gutting responds with “This sounds like Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.’ Hardly a philosophical response.”

True, Wettstein’s claim is hardly a philosophical response – and is thus all the more true, essential, and beautiful for it. Let us sometimes be against philosophy and for poetry, let us sometimes be against theology and for the sacred. For the speech of God is in the outpouring of the poet, it is the practice of “Dreaming in league with God” as Abraham Heschel called it, whether such a God is real or not. For the practice of religion, the practice of faith, is not in proofs or counter-proofs, but rather in Wettstein’s example of a rabbi friend of his who explained that belief was itself not essential to faith, but rather that he “asked of his congregants only that they sing with him, song being somewhat closer to the soul than assent.” Do I sound like some sort of mystical pietist? Very well then, I sound like some sort of mystical pietist. God is large and contains multitudes, one of which may very well be non-existence. And yet we pray despite this; perhaps we pray because of this.


Ed Simon is a senior editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a frequent contributor at several different sites. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books in 2018. He can be followed at his website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

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