John Reader reflects on the Liverpool workshop

14 05 2013

On a general level, it was a good day, particularly because of the mix of people present and disciplines represented, and therefore opportunities for fruitful exchange both within and external to the actual sessions. These are no more than passing comments as I reflect upon some of the substance.

The point was made from within our breakout group that one of the things that philosophy and indeed philosophy of religion can offer is the chance to take time, stand back, and think more deeply about matters of faith and religious practice. It is difficult to do justice to what we meant by that as it makes it sound as though this is simply a matter of technique rather than of content. My take on this evolves very firmly from the work of Bruno Latour and his concept of “reassembling” ( see especially his Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory OUP 2007). My understanding of this is that he is advocating attention to detail, attention to the empirical, and therefore a slow, deliberate and humble reassembling of “matters of concern” which eschews any swift or precipitate recourse to supposed “matters of fact”. It also involves the recognition that judgements of value are always already part of this process, and that once one begins to examine any matter of concern in respectful detail, it becomes clear that there is real substance to be addressed. In order to illustrate this one would have to offer specific examples. One that I have drawn on before, and that became a discussion with another member of the conference as we travelled back together on the same train later, is the controversy over the High Speed Rail Link. Without going into details, I would just argue that “taking time” is not the same as “taking an objective distance” from such debates, but rather, as I think Latour might say, of becoming ever more deeply entangled in the lived complexity of such concerns. Technique then is not enough, as commitment (or various “fidelities”) are always already part of the picture.

A further reflection follows on from this in that I felt there was a tendency to see the potential contribution of philosophy and philosophy of religion as purely a technical one. Philosophy is a discipline that encourages and enables analysis, taking a critical distance, and applying one’s reasoning faculties to the somewhat “alien” subject matter of faith and religious practice. That is certainly not my personal or professional interest in the subject matter of this network. I am more interested in the writings of contemporary philosophers (or recently dead ones anyway!), who I believe offer creative discourses and concepts that help me/us towards a better understanding of the world we inhabit and therefore are engaged in potential discussions with people of faith who may be struggling towards a similar aim. Therefore there are both clashes of content and understanding, but also fruitful encounters from which all involved might benefit. One example which perhaps sets the scene for these encounters is the work of Meillassoux, summed up in a quotation from After Finitude : “The end of metaphysics, understood as the ‘de-absolutization of thought’ is thereby seen to consist in the rational legitimation of any and every variety of religious belief in the absolute, so long as the latter invokes no authority beyond itself… By forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the the religious” (p45). If one takes this as a starting point, which I am inclined to do, it opens up for debate BOTH the nature of philosophical discourse AND that of religious expression and practice – the latter no longer to be reduced to simply a matter of belief, but also not to be subjected to an external critique of “reason” conceived as mere technique. Real encounter and a real journey of discovery towards a common end of deeper understanding: that is the direction in which I would like to see the network develop. If followed it just might have some direct practical implications for the practice of both faith and politics.

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