Next time you hear someone in analytic philosophy of religion refusing to entertain the analytic and Christian gatekeeping that determines what counts as philosophy of religion, I’ve been involved in a little experiment. I have circulated a very competent and well-written essay on how we might characterize Scheler’s concept of God as providing a basis for nondualistic readings that challenge established dualistic readings of his later thought. I will not share the rejection letters I get from top-regarded philosophy of religion journals that are also analytic in orientation (or let you know which ones as I think that is a bit unprofessional), but if you are wondering why the process studies community and Continental philosophers do not publish as much in these journals (and thereby had to create their own journals) or why they care not for the type of scholarship I (or any phenomenologist/pragmatism about ethics and religion) do, then let me characterize the brief and uncharitable dismissals I have gotten, one of these being today.. (A).
A. That thing you said at the end. We want a paper arguing that thesis about that concept you mention at the end (No explanation or engagement with what I did). No developed reasons as to why my work is being rejected.
B. Given Scheler’s departure from Catholicism, we cannot publish this piece. Your “excellent scholarship” only confirms this.
C. Why would someone think phenomenological descriptions make up a reliable ontology for God and why this guy Scheler? Don’t you know this is an analytic journal!
In no cases of these journals did I receive what were developed engagements even from non-experts. There are no referee reports at all but simple one-line rejections. It took 11 months for three of these journals. So, one may infer a combination of analytic gatekeeping bias that what I do even counts as philosophy of religion and an unwillingness to be broad and pluralistic about philosophy of religion. Even when somewhat reviewed, there exists an unwillingness even to field such work on its own merits. So, I’ll keep you abreast of this piece in a few months in more friendlier places, but analytic philosophers of religion very much need to know how impoverished and sterile it is. They also need to know how power works in their field to affect the possibility of being more inclusive. AP Philosophy of Religion exercises a hermeneutic control over the possibility of philosophy of religion itself and this is an intentional effort on the part of its members. The next time they shake their head, it’s a genuine effort not to be pluralistic.
And let me just assure you, I have now about 30 articles, book reviews, and chapter invites in the seven years I’ve had my Ph.D. I’m very good at what I do. 25 of them are peer-reviewed articles and English-speaking phenomenology journals regularly ask me to review work on Scheler when it comes their way. My work on Scheler has appeared in special volumes on his work, European, and American journals. On one occasion, I have worked anonymously with an international graduate student to help him with his English for a Scheler chapter in his dissertation. I am humble about my expertise and the range of my own capabilities. But what I am trying to stress here dear reader is as old as the romantic comedy: “It’s not me, it’s you dear analytic philosophers of religion who have the problem.”
Yesterday, Pro-Trump insurrectionists attempted to disrupt Congress over a false belief not grounded in reality that the institutional procedure of Congress to certify electoral college vote count could change an election; this was prompted by comments Trump made at rallies that Pence could overturn the election, which fails to understand how government works.
Yesterday, 120 Republicans in the House and a handful of Senators still fostered the false belief that there was election fraud without any evidence; these enablers foster the conditions of violence that the Pro-Trump terrorists enacted since neither the insurrectionists and the opportune Republicans objections are grounded in reality. These Republicans are creating the conditions for such violence to continue.
Yesterday, the capitol was overrun by people who flew Trump and Confederate flags rather than American flags. The Confederate flag is a symbol of treason to the Republic, let alone the values it celebrates betrays the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Trump flags pledge loyalty to one man and not the Republic. In this way, these insurrectionists are not loyal to our Constitution.
Yesterday, an active sitting Republican President encouraged a violent mob of domestic terrorists to storm government. Yesterday, an active sitting Republican President failed again to condemn the terrorism of his own base.
Yesterday, an active sitting Republican President said the domestic terrorists were “special and loved.”
Yesterday, some Republicans and the active sitting Republican President betrayed common sense reality along with the domestic terrorists and in betraying reality, they also betrayed the Republic.
The Christmas tree is an electron-filled excitation. My white tree is encircled by a rainbow spectrum of soft pastels, its pink hue the aggregate of greens, reds, blues, and amber. Bulbous ornaments sparkle in colored anticipation of new day’s light that drowns out the sparkles only to dance and shimmer in the welcomed darkness of the sun’s gradual disappearance. Dangling in stationary position, the ornaments rest on white plastic branches. They seem to dance in the light like the three-dimensional positions of galaxies, each plastic sphere partially covered by the spectacle of other more whole spheres in the foreground of reflective, glittered, or translucent orbs. Each ornament is a near galaxy in itself in its brilliance through the Hubble telescope of my own eyes.
Yes, that’s right. I just said that Diana is at war with a concept for the entire movie. The concept seems to be 1980s capitalist consumerism. Let me explain.
In the first few minutes of the film, we see Maxwell Lord. He is on multiple TVs in 1980s urban America. He’s on the TVs in the window promising that people can earn a fortune if they buy into an oil company cooperative. People purchase a part of a company that would see a return on their investment if the company makes money except that the company cannot make money as it has purchased wells that have little to no chance of producing oil. In effect, Maxwell Lord is exploiting people in a straightforward ponzi scheme, it seems. As we see this promise of you can have it all being made in these first few minutes, we see Wonder Woman in the 1980s saving the day and making herself known to the world by thwarting a robbery at a 1980s mall. The mall is the center of 198os capitalist consumption. So Wonder Woman doing intrinsically worthwhile deeds at the mall serves as a straightforward contrast to Lord’s excessive capitalist exploitation and consumption. Within the first few minutes of the film, the audience is already positioned to see these forces playing out early.
Lord, in fact, does not have it all. He desires it all. In front of his son, an investor confronts him. He wants his money or he will contact the FDC for investor fraud. Lord’s son is right there and sees this exchange. The investor calls Lord a loser, and Lord vows in front of his son that he will never be a loser. Lord has been after the dream of being rich and wanting more in his current endeavors, but also he’s after the dream stone. The dream stone is an ancient artifact that signals the end of a civilization, so it was present at the fall of every civilization in this fictional universe. DC Comics takes literally, “Be careful what you wish for.” The dream stone grants the wisher what they want but also takes what they most value. The movie turns highly conceptual when once Lord acquires the dream stone. At that point, he wishes to become the dream stone himself. He acquires the stone’s wishing powers and exemplifies capitalist subjectivity and the instrumental valuing that animates capitalist consumption. An instrumental reason is a reason for acting that values something for what one gets out of it privately. To value a Picasso instrumentally is to reduce it to a monetary exchange value rather than to see the painting for the beauty that everyone sees it. Instrumental values are private and subjectively important, but not valued objectively at all.
Lord’s “wishing powers” are in constant exchange for more and more, and yet the wishing power does not remove the agent’s freedom to renounce the wish. Instead, the wish exchanges what the wisher most prizes and values, which at this point in the narrative is actually intrinsic values. Intrinsic values are those reasons that hold for all people. Intrinsic reasons judge a good or an action for their own reward at the expense of what one wants instrumentally. For this reason, Lord is always engaged in substituting an instrumental end for an intrinsic one, and offers the deception of the fact that instrumental means to end reasoning can be as satisfying as intrinsically valuable features of human life. Lord even is so deceived that his entire being in the film is the instrumental means to end reasoning of pure capitalist subject. When asked why he is doing this, he keeps asserting the want for “more and more…what else is there.” So a flaw in the movie may be that instrumental means to end reasoning is too easily collapsed into the capitalist subject that wants more and more. However, I think a subtler truth is operating to which the movie rightly puts to work in our minds: that neither the capitalist subject and mentality nor the instrumental means to end reasoners are capable of making a place for intrinsic values in their lives (nor can they act on intrinsic value-based reasoning).
You may be asking yourself what do I mean? Certainly, economies and markets are important in how they work and structure society. In fact, if it weren’t for how goods are distributed and earned, then I wouldn’t have a roof over my head or a job teaching philosophy. However, these are material things and one cannot deny that I am an embodied being with certain material needs like food and shelter. The point is, however, that life cannot just be about the materials goods that make my life possible. In fact, life cannot be reduced to valuing instrumentally the means to how I am satisfied as the means to how goods are distributed impact more than just my enjoyment of them. In fact, life is filled with ideals, values that are so important that they are valued for their own sake beyond the satisfaction they give me. So anytime you read a story of how profit is valued more than human life is when the instrumental and intrinsic compete for our realization together as a society. Such ideals might be that we should value world peace over nuclear conflict as an end in itself worthy of our appraisal and not just the benefit I delight in living free from conflict. Peace is valuable for all human beings. Peace is objectively valuable, even if someone wrongly judges it not to be.
What makes the movie interesting to me is that the end battle is a bit atypical. Lord is defeated by unvarnished truth provided by Wonder Woman’s capacity to wield the lasso of truth. Because Lord is in the transmission machine that is touching everyone everywhere in the world, the entire world realizes the same truth that Diana shares with the world. The truth lasso reveals to the world that instrumental reasoning and the capitalist consumption of more and more are not only false but that in renouncing the wish, human beings can correct themselves away from falsely valuing what Lord’s power granted. The unspoken rule of Lord’s power is that instrumental means to end reasoning and immediate consumption never acknowledged the cost it would have on the people making the wish. The cost comes at the expense of what is intrinsically important. These costs in some instances were revealed too late, so when the man in the diner utters drop dead to a woman he is in argument with, we see the paramedics behind him with regret on his face and yet the nuclear missiles disappear. The lasso of truth may be a doorway for redemption, but also (I want to go out on an ethicist’s limb and assert) that we should be moral realists about intrinsic values. There are objectively existing moral truths that hold for all human beings, and that while they are difficult to know, an unrestrained want and desire of the pure capitalist subject is not what we ought to value at all. So while we may never know what those intrinsically valuable goods are, we must rest assure that we clearly know what those intrinsically valuable goods are not. In good Socratic fashion, the movie does not answer what those intrinsic values are but gives a clear demonstration of what they are not–even Lord teaches us this message also.
When Lord runs to his son to make sure he is safe, Lord is operating with the right type of valuing. He is acting on intrinsic values. He is valuing his son’s safety over all else, and we the audience are asked to agree with this evaluation. Lord, like us, does not want to live in a world where fathers do not value the life of their sons, so this is not a subjective judgment. In fact, it is an objective intrinsic value offered as one clear example. All fathers should chose the sanctity of life regarding their children over against the want for power and wealth. Power and wealth that destroys the conditions under which our children would die is not intrinsically worthwhile at all. In this very moment, he also apologizes not to the world but to his son. We know that Lord should apologize to the world, but the fact that he ignored his son the entire movie is too unbelievable to the audience. So Patty Jenkin’s decision to push this allegory of instrumental versus intrinsic valuing means that the audience must see the start of Lord’s redemption through the innocence of his son’s eyes. The unsettling thing is that we can leave the theater with our own children knowing that Lord is free without paying any cost for what he unleashed on the world. In this way, there is a subtle story about how privilege may insulate others from the consequences of their choices.
The subtext of Wonder Woman 1984 may have intended some Orwellian commentary by the selection of the year, 1984 in the title as they could have picked any year in the 1980s. Given that 1984 is a dystopian commentary on a totalitarian state with increased capacity for mass surveillance, technological propaganda and complete disappearance of the private and public distinction, I am at a loss that Jenkins intended any of that in this film. However, I am open to the possibility that Lord may in his own way symbolize a subtle critique that invites us to consider that while fun and escapist this movie is, the 198os were not that great in terms of what people valued–that’s the real message Wonder Woman ’84 puts forward.
When Nietzsche critiques Christianity as the source of Western nihilism, I wonder if we might conjecture that the nihilism started by deifying the Messianic promise into a person rather than sustaining in belief the type of dynamic order one finds in immanence? By immanence, I mean conceptions of nature like those in Native American traditions, Taoism and Emerson. Even the conception of sunyata as an emptiness of all form to include all in it is an ebb and flowing immanence incapable of being captured by concepts. You may be wondering why I ask this question. Let me introduce an hypothesis to explain why.
Philosophical hypothesis: The problem of nihilism never arises for those who never lose touch with and embrace the immanent finitude of life. The problem of nihilism happens to those who are promised a type of Platonist order, a type of Augustinian God, or Cartesian geometer who are so convinced of the concepts they used to describe that order beyond the immanence that the immanence of nature breaks in all the time to the Platonist-like concepts. Values become enshrined in permanence and eternity. That’s why Christianity only makes sense in its panentheist and mystical varieties where impermanence is reckoned.
Mainstream Christianities backslide into nihilism all the time because they cannot deal adequately with the flow and ebb in which reality and ego live. The ground shifts in consciousness and the world to the point that all is unstable. In thinking that some future material state will promise permanent deliverance, the Mainstream Christian is always upset that the regular flow of life is never the same as that perfect order and stasis that he or she has always thought God through (albeit this is the theoretical edge process theology has on Mainstream Christianity). The ground is always shifting beneath his or her feet and that scares us. We are scared of the impermanence we find in the living moment rather than the flowing steadiness of an order that was never meant to reflect the projected dynamism all reality felt. Nihilism always follows upon the heels of those that live this illusion.
I wanted to meditate on the rupture now besetting the public and political imagination of ordinary Americans. On the one side, we have political and religious conservatives. The most vile of them are solid partisans who worship Trump like cultists who would do anything for him like denounce fair and honest elections. Thus, when Trump lies about fraudulent voting practices or anything inconvenient to him (like experts in public health, climate science, or now state bureaucrats both Republican and Democratic that are confident in the volunteer state-controlled apparatus of elections), then his ego is fed. His view is validated and those cultist Trumpians enable the fabricated reality of Trump’s mind to constitute more parts of social reality than it should—to the point they wind up echoing and reproducing his delusional statement of mind. Next are those political and religious conservatives that we may call instrumental Trumpians. They will cozy up to Trump and use Trump for their own religious and political purposes. These are the conservatives you may well know who courted the types of people who now are cultist Trumpians. Finally, the never Trumpians never had a shot at controlling Trump but somehow still believe in the procedural elements of democratic governance that their opposition may also believe in.
On the other side, we have an entire implicit and under-developed Leftism that has failed for years to make itself known to working class members of the cultist Trumpians. The grouping on this side we can define as how open to emancipation the various internal groupings on the Left are. First, multicultural corporatists are those Democrats that work only within the system and seek not to interrogate the sources of capitalist and economic exploitation. They focus on issues of social importance such that the economic machine may continue. They may focus on same-sex marriage but oppose universal health care for the same health insurance corporations that contribute to Republican coffers. These people are likely to believe also in the same procedural elements of democratic governance.
Second, there are the democratic socialists who think the state should provide a collection of goods like subsidized university education, public primary and secondary education, health care, and whatever else might contribute to the ends of everyone being lifted up together. The Democratic socialist acknowledges the structural features of economic exploitation as it contributes to intergenerational poverty, racism, being made poor by receiving chemotherapy in the United States and all other forms of domination. In acknowledging the structures behind the exploitation, the democratic socialist sees our shared efforts should be directed at reforming those structures that sustain and continue exploitation.
Both the multicultural corporatists and the democratic socialists will align against all Trumpians because the agitation and sustained anger that is redirected by Trump is an open invitation to scapegoat liberals, immigrants, and anyone in the moment who distracts away from the structural features of society that sustain and continue exploitation. His focus causes ire of passing off fear for addressing those features of society that should be addressed. Let me give you a concrete example. Pre-existing conditions inhibit insurance companies from being as profitable as they could be, so undermining the Affordable Care Act while having no replacement serves the interest of these companies at the expense that protection is meant to achieve—that having a preexisting condition is an actual thing. Elsewhere in the world, preexisting conditions are just a patient’s medical history. In countries with a public health system where no profit serves the motives of health care delivery people do not decide between when they can afford to go to the hospital or whether or not they go risking debit.
Since the Left as a whole has failed to make its case, the effect is now that Trumpian populism has now made both cultist Trumpians and instrumental Trumpians aware that they now have a blue streak of former blue collar workers and maybe former union-paying members that have gone unaddressed by the mainstream Democratic Party. These inroads are devastating for two reasons. First, the redirection of conscious energy now serves to further reinforce the scapegoating that Trump and his cronies enact rather than focusing on problem solving of the very structures. That scapegoating can easily put people in cages and demarcate those with whom are said to be responsible for their lot in life. Such scapegoating put Jews into ghettos, sustained racism in Jim Crow, and exacerbates the illusion of the concealed systemic structures that do the exploiting. Second, these forgotten folks were blue collar workers who propped up the same structures remain uninterrogated and unreformed. Instead, these cultist Trumpians are agitated to remain angry at the state of the world such that an authoritarian personality like Trump may come along and stand in opposition to those on the Left that fight for the liberation of working class people. In this way, working class people are now convinced that unions are unnecessary to guard against exploitation of their capitalist CEOs and business owners. Managerial mindsets are everywhere that put profit before people and now everyday average people cannot conceptualize the structures that cause exploitation and domination in their imaginations. Such questioning is actively resisted because of the acceptance of the authority of the demagogue they continue obeying. So even if they were Democrats, they were never the type of Democrats that address the structural features responsible for the exploitation that served to motivate them to be blue collar Democrats.
This collective burden and failure now demands that we develop a restorative mindset open to new collaborations, standing up for working people, oppressed minorities, and again make our case to everyday people swayed under the authoritarian proclivity of Trump. For this reason, it is important to revitalize a mindset that people when organized can address the very structures that multicultural corporatists and all Trumpians and never Trumpians embrace. In this way, our coalition with some is tentative. As we proceed forward, we must create moments of interruption and resistance but do so while showing concrete policy proposals that are possible. For the system that goes unquestioned and without philosophical interrogation is one that conceals from us the very freedom to imagine organizing society differently than its current arrangement. Constitutions can be amended. Laws can be changed, and justice can be sought. Trumpians and some Democrats wish for all of us to forget that such institutions are only sustained by a willingness to accept them. Our refusal is the very source of our freedom to address and challenge them.
I recently faced this question. Joshua Ryan Farris invited me to write on Brightman’s personalistic idealism. I was to write up one of those chapters that summarizes the legacy of Brightman’s work similar to an Oxford Handbook on such-and-such. To my dismay, Conservative Philosopher shared a news article praising Trump’s recent presidential order. Trump’s order denied systemic racism existed and would not approve any federal contracting businesses that held race training sessions nor would approve of any grants that assumed systemic racism as a premise of the grant. On Conservative Philosopher’s Facebook Wall, I was both mocked and laughed at. That’s not what bothered me.
I faced a dilemma: Either I should publish something about Brightman in this anthology or I should not. The reason why Brightman’s thought is accorded status and why I think it ultimately valuable rests on two facts. First, Brightman’s moral law system enshrined that the absolute dignity of another is central to what it means to hold a religious ethics. Next, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose Brightman, I think, for this very reason to be his mentor in graduate study. Unfortunately, Brightman died about two years into King’s attendance at Boston University, and yet King still persisted in identifying himself as a personalist finishing his dissertation with L. Harold DeWolf, Brightman’s student. As I am want to do for the same reason that both King and Brightman are valuable, I in good conscience could not work with and for someone who denies that systemic and structural racism persist in the United States. I withdrew my chapter. I spoke of how troubling I found it to be.
Moreover, like postmodernism, critical race theory became a bogeyman for many on the Right that this Presidential order somehow shed light on. When I confronted that nobody in that thread had read or taken up the work of many thinkers in that tradition, but that they did not offer any specific attack or thesis of Leonard Harris, Tommy Curry, and Charles Mills to simply name a few off the top of my head, I only got back silence. In effect, they are attacking the philosophical tenability of a position they have not read about nor at least won’t communicate anything about it if they had. While more than likely the former, I still think that we should not impugn philosophical views we have not adequately explained nor understood. A proper exposition gives one a right to say something about it. Clearly, this was not the case here.
With all things being equal, my chapter on Brightman would not have highlighted any disagreement with this person about contemporary matters. Racism would never been brought up, and when cornered on that thread, my withdrawing from contributing was interpreted as I was the one who was retreating from engaging others who I disagree politically. I can only conclude, however, that where I place my scholarship must follow the values of dignity I find in Brightman and King’s work. In a sense, I am not retreating from the importance of teaching these authors nor doing scholarship about them, I am simply not publishing a chapter about them in a book with someone whose values will not benefit someone who is in clear denial of history and the structural racism that personalist frameworks have highlighted. I think this decision is the right one.
Religere is a Latin verb; it means “to bind or to mend.” This word origin gives only an inkling as to what religion means and how best to regard it. Religion escapes us precisely because no single intellectual discipline can lay claim to a phenomenon so complex and intricate. For the Sociologist, religion is a social system. For the English scholar, religion is in its literature. For the psychologist, religion is in the psychological states of believers. For the philosopher of religion, wisdom is the goal, and so the best philosophers of religion should take stock of religion as a phenomena that encapsulates looking at the other disciplines to see how they regard religion. For this reason, philosophy of religion is not a precise disciplinary look at religion, but a trans-disciplinary inquiry that attempts to look at the grounds on which the claims religions proffer about reality. In this way, the metaphysician is one who attempts to interpret the concepts that remain unexamined ontologically in any particular religious worldview at the most fundamental level of being and reality. So, a philosopher of religion may be one who attempts to work through the source of what it might mean to be religious more generally. Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910 writes):
No external action can develop an empty mind which has no law, no nature, or direction into anything. This would be to act upon a void. Hence it is hopeless to look for the source of religious ideas in external experience alone. We must assume a germ of religious impulse in the soul in order to make religious development possible. But, on the other hand, this germ is not self sufficient. It develops only under the stimulus of outer and inner experience, and unless under the criticism and restraint of intellect and conscience it develops into grotesque or terrible forms. The stimulus may be manifold (4).
For Bowne, then, religion comes from an impulse. The source of the Divine is animated by some type of inner wellspring, and yet it also requires the world for the inner experience to be realized. In fact, if we assume there’s some religious impulse in human beings, then we can explain why it is the case that there are so many religions and the many avenues of stimulus that give rise to better and worse forms of religious expression. In this way, out of the onto-relationality of human experience, which are my words put into Bowne’s Philosophy of Theism (1887), originates many avenues and sources of religious knowledge. For Bowne, they can be 1. a sense of dependence, 2. the needs of the intellect, 3. the demands of a foreboding conscience, 4. the demands of cravings in the affectations, 5. the demand of revelation, 6 or some direct influence of God (5). Whether or not religions are formed from all of these or only one of them is a question “for separate study.” However, what is clear is that Bowne’s conception of both demand and need originate in something similar to James’s agential psychology of selective interest in the attentive field.
According to James, a person’s experience is guided by the selective interest. Selective interest ushers forth from the attentive field of consciousness. Since consciousness transforms some aspect of our experience into an object of awareness, then we name this thread of experienced object and the duration of our attending feeling act to it until another experience in the stream is introduced that breaks with the act-object experience. As we are dealing with thread and connections of experience, there is no perspective outside of time and space according to James, but only the immediate and the practical needs (needs and demands in Bowne’s language or selective interest in James’s earliest language even in The Sentiments of Rationality in which religious concepts must mesh with our human powers of experience) The coming and goings, the attention and the receding emergence and withdrawal of conscious life engenders the concepts that philosophers then speculate about. However, the important point to notice is does Bowne break with James by insisting then that there is a rational ground for religion at all. That’s the guiding question of Bowne’s Philosophy of Theism: Is there a rational ground within the religious impulse? Certainly James would say that there’s a certain rationality bound up with feeling this particular way, but it is another thing to propose the singular rational ground for the Divine and God.
After years of study of the Earth’s religions (and you must humble yourself before how complex these various religious systems are) and many years of academic philosophy, religions all melt together. They lose their luster because each one claims access to describe what truly is. Since there are so many descriptions of what truly is, they each become almost reducible to various ways of being. The philosopher in me is tempted to say they become systems of thought, but that is not quite right (though tempting a thesis to think every religion reducible to propositions making claims about reality).
Each religion becomes like the attempt to hold onto sand. When you scoop sand into your hands, you start to feel much of it escape through your fingers and the edges of your hand. As you try and squeeze harder, the more sand escapes you. By analogy, the more you attempt to believe and claim one vision of what truly is, the more other parts and other descriptions and ways of being elude you. In the end, all religion is like holding onto sand. You cannot tell from what conceptualization you have of it left which version may describe what truly is; you only know what you cannot know. The only religion left to learned people and scholars is, then, to be Socratic while everyone around you in the American South thinks it possible to conceive what’s true from what little sand is left in their hands.