Talking Right Past Each Other – Deep Grace Is Needed

            A fascinating discussion of Dawkins and Eagleton by Asad Raza over at — suggests that it isn’t just atheists and believers who are talking right past each other in the current heated conflicts between science and religion — in these conflicts that are keeping me up at night on a vigil for the the life of the mind….

          No, Raza suggests that “the rhetorical excess [of both Eagleton and Dawkins] does not belong to the debate about God itself, but to their competing disciplines, which struggle for social capital and resources.” 

        According to Raza, then,  it’s the same old story of the “two cultures”?  The sciences vs the humanities?  Empiricism vs culture studies?  The same old classical modern impasse.  But hang on a minute.  We aren’t in that era anymore!

         Now do you realize, gentle readers, that some of you who are reading this post are English majors, some of you are physicists, some are scholar-teachers, some are grad students in theory, and some are former honors students of mine, who used to be drawn from every single major across campus, all of you (as I came to know) personally scarred in various ways by our entrenched cultural divisions between science and faith, and yet learning that if you could stop competing and listen to one another for awhile, there wasn’t a single discipline on campus that couldn’t bring a (different) healing perspective to the common problem?

          I can’t do anything about the personal and factional pettiness of human beings, or the political pressures that are inflaming the climate of opinion today, or the constant testosterone wars that go on in academia (and elsewhere), or the fearful defensiveness that marks all our rhetoric at times. But I can deal very efficaciously with the intellectual issues of why we don’t understand each other even when we are trying to.

          Why? Because I’m a great teacher of theory and epistemology. I can leverage you right out of this culture we’re in and immerse you in other thought-worlds. I can teach you “not to patronize the past and to view the present as itself a period.” I can give you insightful and liberating perspectives on the historical development of science and of Christianity in the West.

         Why can I do this? (And why do you care?) Because I so very deeply believe that “it is natural to all human beings to desire to come to know.” That’s Aristotle, of course, and he and Plato and the martyred Socrates before them all passionately loved to think. 

            They invented “the arts and sciences,” and ever since then, for 2400 years, Westerners have been fired by their vision of the vitality and power of the life of the mind. And now, when a Western-style education is no longer confined to those born in the West, the rigorous and pluralistic dialectical conversations the Greeks originally  envisioned as our deepest joy and satisfaction as human beings — and the Christian thinkers who came after them for 1400 years wholeheartedly agreed with them — can be that much more fascinating and thrilling than ever before.

         The legacy of theoretical analysis has so much grace to offer us right now, if only we are willing to grasp it anew. This is why I want to teach how to “think theory,” no matter who you are or what your background is. I want to teach about the ways the most brilliant minds in philosophy have theorized about how we come to know as human beings. 

               And I can do this — because I’ve worked all my life to figure out how to do it.  I can do this because my branches of philosophy are literary theory and epistemology (“the formal study of how humans come to know, and how they know that they know, when they think they do”).  And for a long, long time I have wanted to explain these things, just the same way I now see gifted physicists on their popular weblogs explaining the complexities of all the various branches and sub-branches of physics to the uninitiated and partially initiated.  (Check out Mark on “Why E=Mc^2” at

               Theorists and philosophers — direct inheritors of the Greek vision — have come to a sorry pass if they talk only to one another in esoteric journals and at conferences, and in such highly specialized languages that the public is excluded.  (Raza, btw, has a marvelous quote from Zizek, the only current theorist who talks pop-culture.)  Of course, most theoretical work must be done on that highest level. But its fruits belong to everyone by right, because it belongs to all “who desire to come to know. “

        What I want to convey vividly is how the Greeks believed that we can only come to know because there is order in the world. But they did not believe there was only one kind of order. On the contrary, they  observed that every kind of thing in the world has its own formal kind of order, and every discipline must therefore have its own way of thinking rigorously.

          I can show you how and why we lost sight of this for awhile in the West, during the birth of the Modern Era, and how the twentieth-century critique of modernity (and current postmodern thought) has given it back to us.

           I can help you think through the very different kinds of evidence and discovery-procedures and validity-testing in each of the arts and sciences, and the way that different modes of thought open up different avenues of learning for us, but also limit our knowing at the same time.

             This last is a tough pill to swallow, but I believe it is the irreducible paradox of later twentieth-century thought, and it has led us towards (a redemptive) epistemological humility.  (And no, this isn’t relativism, either. It is a rigorous and lucid intelligibility for our times, even though it in turn will need to be rethought and superceded by those who follow us….)

            All you need to do is work your way with me through the course sessions I’m placing to the right (under Pages). I’ll keep weblogging and I’ll keep posting excerpts from those sessions, but you need to think your way through the course-sessions, bit by bit.  Print the first one out. Put it in the bathroom. Take it with you hiking. Do whatever it takes!

            There’s going to be one problem, though.  If you’re not a theist, you’ll have to get over the fact that I am one.  And if you’re a Christian, you’ll have to get over the fact that you disagree with me, perhaps profoundly, on some things regarding faith.  

                Trust me, though, I will be utterly responsible in teaching my discipline. You’ll learn a lot of philosophy.  And if you think I’m being sloppy or dishonest or biased or polemical, just say so.  But if the sessions are (perish the thought) boring, well, for heavens sake do something else!

            But I’m not going to hide my full humanity from you in my lectures.  I’m going to ask you to accept me as the whole person (and the flawed person) I am.  It’s part of that epistemological humilty I was talking about.

Addendum to “Scientists — wont to look down…”

I need to correct the link to soulforce.  (I’m a humanities prof, not a computer genius!)  You’ll get there if you replace .com with .org.  — even  if this link still doesn’t work:     Sooo, my quizzical son says to me, with that characteristic gentle solemnity of his, “Well, Mom, but you aren’t gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender….”  (Thus sons  do love to provocate their mothers.)  “No, I’m not,” I say, “but I am an Episcopalian!”  Do you, gentle readers, have any idea of the courage of what these students are doing?   They’re a model for respectful confrontation, which we could use in our own conversations between science and faith.  (Btw, I may not be GLBT, but I did spend many, many years being very alone, shamed, and persecuted — but that is another story… maybe I’ll tell it here someday.)   All the other amazingly poetic, powerful, profound, and persuasive things I have to say must wait for my next post. (But please go to Pages and read in Session One.)

“Scientists — wont to look down….”

My “thought for today” comes from Michael Polanyi, world-class physical chemist and philosopher of science, whose wry comment continues:

“…scientists — wont to look down from the pinnacle of their humility upon the dogmatic rest of mankind….” (Personal Knowledge, p. 13)

Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins has made some waves recently ( from the pinnacle of his own humilty) in The God Delusion, a book arguing that belief in God is irrational — and harmful to humanity — and we ought to give it up. (He notes in a recent interview that Americans may be “readier” for such a book “after seven years of President Bush.” How true.)

Over on the lively physics blogsite called Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll memorably introduced his review of Dawkins ( go to The God Conundrum in the November Archives at in this way:

Some of you may be wondering: “Does God exist?” Fortunately, Richard Dawkins has written a new book…that addresses precisely this question. As it turns out, the answer is: “No, God does not exist.” (Admittedly, Dawkins reached his conclusion before the Cards won the World Series.)

“Nevertheless, there remains a spot of controversy — it would appear that Dawkins’ rhetorical force is insufficient to persuade some theists. …”

My post today is not a response to Dawkins’s book, but rather a meditation of the difficult possibility of conversation between science and faith. It will revolve around two of Sean Carroll’s witty and provocative posts and also some recent posts from the students over at Soulforce, who are traveling to Christian campuses around the nation “to affirm the full humanity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students” on those campuses.

Their posts, describing visits last week to my campus (SPU before I retired) and to another Christian campus in Seattle, are truly transformative commentaries. I found them also to be pieces of philosophically and existentially profound applied thought-work. (Go to

For a long time I’ve been planning to go on-line with session-transcripts of my course in the history of literary theory, but I never expected my first real post would be something like this….

But then Jennifer Ouelette, a former student (from more years back than I care to remember — but she’s young — she’s young, young, young, and I alone am old…) published her marvelously entertaining and informative books Black Bodies and Quantum Cats and The Physics of the Buffyverse, and I discovered for myself that she has turned into a really jazzy and high-level popular interpreter of physics at her Cocktail Party Physics blog, over at

Now Jennifer got me into reading other popular phys blogs like Cosmic Variance and 3 Quarks Daily, which offers a scintillating collection of links to thought pieces of all kinds. How did I ever live without it?

But reading Sean Carroll’s thoughtful post “The God Conundrum” and many of the responses from his regular readers got me all anxious and concerned about the way the rhetoric has heated up on the scientific side of the current conflict between science and religion (provoked by “creation science” and Intelligent Design).

I must admit I am not surprised at blanket denunciations, when it comes from some on the religious side, but I naively persist in expecting that scientists will display the benefits of a liberal education and not engage in a militant dismissal of an entire group, on the basis of the slogan “Reason is on our side.”

How is this, I asked myself, any different from condemning entire groups of people for being “immoral” or “unpatriotic” or “you-fill-in-the-blank,” because “God is on our side”?

I think both of these tactics are rationally indefensible (based on myown branch of philosophy) and also destructively harmful responses for entering the public discussions in the civic arena, without which democracies haven’t much hope.

Dawkins is ironically enough Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. Hmmm. He promotes “public understanding” of science by — to borrow a thought from Soulforce — “denying the full humanity” of an entire huge portion of humanity?

If scientists are currently interested in “framing” their contributions to a wider public in order to promote understanding of science, perhaps Dawkins’ way isn’t the best way to go about it….

So okay now, Sean Carroll, on the other hand, does a great job of separating out three different issues Dawkins is trying to deal with all confused together, and Sean points out that the struggles in Northern Ireland cannot be simplistically reduced simply to religion as a cause. I couldn’t agree more. (Again, based on my discipline.)

Then Sean ventures an interesting account of the opposition or incompatibility between the Hebraic “anthropomorphic” God and the Greek “god of the philsophers,” something I deal with at various points in my course in Western theory.

I always love to see it, whenever thinkers in one field — and take a look at Sean’s truly impressive post about how science really works in What I Believe But Cannot Prove  — seek to acquire genuine understanding in fields other than their own. (I do it myself and I am seeking more of it on this weblog.)

Still, I do think that persons who have been exercised and humbled by the complexity and depth of their own disciplines and who have come to be proficient in them through decades of experience, ought to recognize that others have probably acheived an equivalent sense of the depth and complexity of their fields and an equivalent proficiency as appropriate to the dimensions of reality they seek to explore, and rigorously.

In other words, if you’re out of your field, Dude, then you gotta offer your comments with a due diffidence.

It wounds me as a thinker and educator to see scientists act as though an “outsider” can make short work of an entire field or of a complex tradition, or of the historical interplay between two complex traditions (Hebraic and Greek), based on an implicit assumption that by virtue of one’s own intellect and training, one is simply more rational than those who work in those other fields or are formed within those traditions.

Is that a fair response, I hope? Several comments by Sean’s readers highlight the problem I’m pondering. One said for example, of Sean’s dismissive summary of the Judaeo-Christian God (supported with some textual criticism — well, good luck with that to anyone, even the best informed), words to the effect of “that’s a good one, I can use that.” In other words, it’s useful for polemic.

Another reader wondered why Terry Eagleton would claim that Dawkins wasn’t qualified as a scholar, countering, What scholarship would be necessary here? All that’s needed (to dismiss belief in God as unthoughtful) is the simple ability to think and draw reasonable conclusions. Anyone (who’s reasonable) can do that, can’t they?

If that were all that was needed to arrive at defensible conclusions, we wouldn’t need science, and physics would come to a halt. Humans need methodologies, and they need methods that are suited to the subject matter. Humans are also formed (shaped) by their methodologies, in ways they can remain in blissful innocence about if they choose.

But if you want the insights of my branch of philosophy on the humbling recognition of how deeply we are always-already conditioned (and these insights require their own methods to get at them), then start reading my Session One page on this website.

Sean asked me, by the way, to give “one clear example” of a “way of knowing” conditioning its interpretive community, so that he could respond to it. Fair enough, I thought.

(I had been trying to suggest that what scientists take for granted as reasonable thinking probably often reflects the axioms and discovery procedures and validity-testing they have absorbed and become deeply conditioned by in becoming scientists.)

So I thought about how to explain this in one Cartesian “clear and simple idea” and gave up. I can’t do it. My discipline isn’t like that.

You would have to let me teach you a truly other way of thinking and then step back with me and theorize about it, and that takes time and a number of strategies similar to teaching someone to speak (and think) in a foreign language.

But doing so makes Descartes’s notion of a clear idea dissolve, in much the same way that the old model of the atom dissolved and was thereafter reconstituted in the 1910s and 20s and after. (See Session One, under “The Sphere of Language” and “The Irreducible Paradox of Later Twentieth-Century Thought.”)

In the meantime, though, I recommend readers go over to Soulforce and contemplate the posts there, reflecting on the personal experiences of Christian students confronting other Christians about “denying the full humanity” of the GLBT students among them. You will see, I think, some existential wisdom, the kind that can come sometimes from standing alone and being persecuted. But it is also wisdom that comes from some informed disciplinary studies.

The posts from Soulforce resurrect my hope for wisdom and deep respect in conversational confrontations between groups of persons who hold very different beliefs and outlooks — or have very different disciplinary training.

For many theists, this is the essential nature of spirituality, allowing oneself to be shaken to the very foundations about what one thinks one knows, over and over again. Within each of the arts and sciences, this must also happen, and so it is one of the marks of the real life of the mind, as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle envisioned it when they invented liberal education.

That’s coming up in my Session Two, a transcript dealing with “The Classical Greek Thought-world.” So I hope perhaps you’ll read a bit in Session One, make some comments, and stay tuned.

This is a weblog devoted to thinking….

 …thinking the history of literary theory and applying its deep grace to the possibility of conversation between science and faith.

As a retired professor, I’d like to teach you “how to think theory,” through a course in the history of literary theory, from Plato to Derrida and Kristeva.  (See more in “About me.”)

AND it is a weblog for me to offer some sustained meditations (and a chance for dialogue) about the wisdom and grace I think theory has to offer us today, regarding the various human ways of knowing and how we might carry their wisdom out of the disciplines and into the civic arena of public discussion. Without that, democracies really haven’t much hope.

We are experiencing the disturbing heating up again of conflict between science and religion,  evidenced by “creation science” and by reactions from scientists such as Richard Dawkins in his recent book, The God Delusion. I’ve spent my lifetime teaching the branch of philosophy called literary theory, which I believe  from Plato onward has raised fundamental  questions about how human beings come to know. Theory provides no simple answers, but it does yield some deep insights that apply to the arts and the sciences and even to other ways of knowing outside academia….

So I am attempting to introduce a different way of thinking about knowing. It is NOT the way we are most familiar with, which opposes scientific “knowledge” to non-scientific “opinion” or “merely personal” experience. This opposition is regarded in my own fields (and in many others) as unhelpfully simplistic and biased, but it is still deeply entrenched in all of our minds.

So I am trying to get you to go with me on a journey of discovery, keeping an open mind and attempting the “thought experiment” of stepping outside of our own cultural conditioning and considering other thought worlds., such as that of the Greeks, for example, where my course begins.  

Today I am placing on this site much of Session One, a rapid-fire course overview. In the weeks to come I will be posting additional sessions from my course, one by one, where we slow down and work in greater detail.

I will also be offering excerpts from Session One as posts, and offering other posts on related issues. My hope is that you will  be drawn into reading the sessions, and responding to them with questions, because that is the only way I can really offer you the deep grace of theory for our day.

This site is intended not so much for arguing for or against the perspectives offered here, as for explaining these perspectives and makaing them clear.  But I can guarantee you’ll learn a lot about history and philosophy in the process.

Okay, folks, with that explanation behind us, please stay tuned for my first post tomorrow, considering a great physics blogsite named “Cosmic Variance,” in relation to some other posts over at “Soulforce,” a site for a group of students who are visiting Christian college campuses “to affirm the full humanity” of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students on those campuses.