Introducing the Network… John Reader

22 04 2013

[John is a member of the Philosophy and Religious Practices steering committee and is helping put together the final conference. He is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in Oxfordshire, as well as a Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation. He has published widely on the intersection of practical theology and philosophy, including the recent Heterotopia.]

Being a member of this network is, for me, the latest stage of what has become a lifelong journey in the quest for understanding the relationship between reason and faith. This began when I was a teenager and happened to pick up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”. This got me thinking that perhaps using one’s intellect could be a means of both analysing and controlling one’s emotions. My subsequent interest in philosophy led to an undergraduate course in Philosophy and Theology at Oxford. Needless to say, I found the philosophy boring and largely sterile, but I did encounter more contemporary philosophy in the philosophical theology aspect of the course, notably through the work of Tillich which led me to Heidegger. I recall then struggling through “Being and Time” for myself at theological college, and even trying to write an external BD on Tillich and Heidegger as I began my first curacy.

So the “madness” continued as Heidegger led me to Gadamer, Ricoeur and then Habermas, and a search through philosophical hermeneutics into critical hermeneutics, and an attempt to establish if one could derive clear and definitive criteria for the interpretation of texts. As I wrote my M.Phil for Manchester using this material, I came to the conclusion that what I was engaged in as a front-line “religious professional” was critical, emancipatory Christian practice.

By this stage my philosophical studies were shaping both practice and theory. Tillich’s model of being on the boundary between different disciplines continued to inspire, and I looked at his ideas on the method of critical correlation and then David Tracy’s development of this into mutually critical correlations, and their respect for the relative autonomy of different disciplines became a guideline for my own work. The nature of the encounter(s) between philosophy and religion, reason and faith, theory and practice has continued to be the golden thread of my academic and pastoral journeys. After coming across a book called “Discipline and Punish” by a thinker I had then never heard of, I decided that the interplay between Habermas and Foucault would be challenging and creative. In due course this led me to Derrida, and then an external Ph.D on the subject of “Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. Once again, the encounter was the thing, and I developed four criteria for engagement building upon the work of both these thinkers, those being: the search for truth and trustworthiness; the tension between the universal and the particular; understandings of human subjectivity; the messianic and links to the notions of democracy and indeterminacy. The basic argument was – and will still be – that there are always already entanglements and or connections between the apparently distinctive and separate spheres of faith and reason, and that all attempts to contain them within watertight compartments by treating each as “the other”, are a misunderstanding of how things are.

One can see how such an approach is anathema to Radical Orthodoxy which wishes to subsume the non-theological in all forms into its own version of theology. Early personal encounters with John Milbank along those lines proved unproductive! Putting these ideas into practice led to the notion of “blurred encounters” as one way of describing my approach in both theory and practice, itself then leading to further publications and conferences as others began to find this way of describing their ministry creative and useful. Of the original four criteria, the one that has occupied most time in the last 10 years has been the debate on human subjectivity, and I might now see the main task as “reassembling the human”.

Having left Habermas and Derrida behind, the work has taken me into the writings of Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, Meillassoux and others sometimes known as “Speculative Realists”, and then also to Bruno Latour who has become perhaps the major conversation partner, even though he is  an anthropologist and originator of science studies and actor network theory. My main quarrel with most theology and religious practice is that they move too quickly and easily through encounter and then into their own theory, without engaging with the hard graft of working with the detail and complexity of what Latour might call “matters of concern” and that both he and Deleuze would term the “assemblages” or “gatherings” which are the real content of both human and non-human life. By listening to and learning from the unfamiliar and challenging discourse of some of these later thinkers, one can perhaps develop a discipline of more considered, provisional, humble and realistic value-shaped practice, rather than assuming that a particular religious understanding has already “got the answers”. One must not assume in advance that any specific encounter will prove productive or creative. There can be “relations of non-relation”; disjunctive syntheses, occasions where neither side can impact upon the other, as well as ones where both sides are changed but still retain their identity and integrity. There is no substitute for the Latourian process of entering the world of circulating references in specific instances in order to see what will emerge, and no room for either a philosophical or theological imperialism.

I believe that this new network will show the importance and legitimacy of this more open approach through a contemporary philosophy of religion.




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