Posts Tagged ‘agency’

March 3rd, 2015

Give me that digital religion

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Every Sunday night in Omaha, Nebraska, a small group gathers in a United Church of Christ church lobby to watch and participate in a streaming video broadcast called Darkwood Brew. Both the project and the space—which has been transformed into a hip coffee shop—feel more of a piece with evangelical strategies to attract new members than with the trappings of Midwestern mainline Protestants. The crowd itself is relatively sparse, and much older than you might expect for such an experiment: a couple dozen people, most between 40 and 60 years of age.

I visited Countryside Community Church in fall 2011 as a Research Fellow for the New Media Project (housed at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis). Darkwood Brew was one of six case studies chosen for the first phase of the New Media Project’s research into how Christian communities in the United States are using, and theologically interpreting, new digital technologies. On its website, Darkwood Brew is described as “a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive/emerging Christian faith and values.” There is some debate among the participants themselves about whether or not the live stream counts as a church service; despite the fact that the weekly program features bible study, discussion, music, and concludes with the Christian rite of communion, most resist the language of “church” to describe what is happening.

December 23rd, 2014

The Fantastic Mr. Hobbes

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Some readers of Minding the Modern have been surprised to find my account so firmly critical of Thomas Hobbes on will and personhood. Now, it is both incidental and inevitable that my reading challenges recent attempts to claim Hobbes as a precursor of modern liberalism and individualism. Long before me, of course, a wide and diverse array of thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, John Milbank, Louis Dupré, Michael Oakeshott) had probed the conceptual weakness of modern Liberalism, particularly its propensity to expire in an omnipresent state, putatively enlightened and benevolent as it orders and controls individual and social life at every level. If my reading of Hobbes casts doubt on some of modern Liberalism’s cherished axioms and aspirations, this only points to a certain lack of discernment among those who would identify Hobbes as a heroic precursor of an enlightened, secular, and liberal politics, of whose lasting benefits they remain unshakably persuaded. That said, political theory is not a principal concern of Minding the Modern, whereas putting analytic pressure on modern philosophy’s assumptions about human agency, rationality, and volition very much is.

December 22nd, 2014

Modernity as a hermeneutic problem

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I should thank the organizers at The Immanent Frame for hosting a forum on Minding the Modern and all respondents for their participation. As expected, the forum has not just yielded considerably divergent appraisals, but has also revealed respondents’ often strikingly disparate assumptions about what it means to engage a large-scale intellectual narrative. Clearly, to proffer such a narrative is a risky proposition in an academic environment characterized by ever more minute forms of specialization and by an often proprietary view of the knowledge produced under such conditions. Since restrictions of space make it impossible for me to address each response with the detail that one might wish for, a broader, thematic approach seems the best alternative. Hence my response to the various statements posted at this forum will be divided into three parts: the editors of The Immanent Frame have kindly agreed to publish the first two parts of my response and to create a link to the third.

October 23rd, 2014

Ancient questions for modern answers

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The central contrast in Thomas Pfau’s rich and rewarding book, Minding the Modern, is between two radically opposed views of human agency. The first is the “classical view of human agency” that was first formulated by Plato and Aristotle and which was given a particularly powerful expression in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. According to this view, to do something is to deliberately act on some conception of the good; the telos of agency is reached only by our conscious participation in the permanent and rational order of things. The second and opposing view of human agency, which Pfau describes as the modern or naturalistic view, goes back to William of Ockham but was given its most influential articulation by Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. According to this view, human action is just behavior that is caused by a desire and accompanied by some thought about how to realize that desire in the world.

October 9th, 2014

Mindful love: On Thomas Pfau’s critical appropriation of Thomist moral theory

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Thomas Pfau’s book Minding the Modern is a book of immense scope. About half the work (parts II and III) consists of an ambitious historical genealogy. The other half (the prolegomena and part IV) presents a sustained philosophical argument about human personhood and moral agency. Although Pfau places the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the center of his examination of modernity, the conceptual protagonist of the book is Thomas Aquinas, whose theory of moral agency is seen to afford a robust account of human freedom that is grounded in rational volition: free decisions based on human conscience, practical judgment, teleological aims toward natural goods, virtuous choice making.

October 24th, 2011

The shining and the shiny: An interview with Sean Dorrance Kelly

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Sean Dorrance Kelly is chair of Harvard University’s philosophy department and has published on topics like cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics. For his first general-audience book, though, he teamed up with his former teacher Hubert Dreyfus and took on the Western canon. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, published this year by Free Press, is a daring proposal for a new embrace of ancient polytheism. Looking back to the epics of Homer, they find resources for thwarting the nihilism that has haunted some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I spoke with Kelly over cappuccinos in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, while he was waiting to catch a train back up to Boston.

July 18th, 2011

The politics of the atonement

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To grasp the deep architecture of the political today, therefore, is to venture into the theological domains of Christology and especially atonement, that area of theology (particularly, Christian theology) that deals with the logic of (redemptive) death. But the journey cannot be simply phenomenological in the way Kahn carries it out. Or, put differently, it may need to be phenomenological, but in a way that Kahn himself has not considered. Atonement thinking, and the “death contract” that binds politics, must, from within a different phenomenology (and therefore from within a different approach to political theology), be redirected. There must be a new future of death and the political.

September 6th, 2010

Understanding disenchantment

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Jane Bennett’s sympathetic yet critical commentary on my essay “What is Enchantment?” (published in the volume Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age) describes the notion of disenchantment that I present as primarily addressing the theological displacements that emerged with the rise of the new science. Her own work, she says, offers a quite different focus, one of a mood or affect that “circulates between human bodies and the animal, vegetable, and mineral forces they encounter.”

I don’t doubt that this interesting focus is quite different from mine, though I think it would be wrong to represent my view as being focused on the theological. In my analysis, the theological had only a central genealogical role to play in the process of “disenchantment.”