Statement of Intent (PhD Application)

In studying at the University of Dallas at the doctoral level, I hope to marshal the resources of the catholic western Christian tradition, particularly those of Aquinas but also Augustine, and bring them to bear on matters of contemporary thought.

I have come to see that the assumptions of today’s contemporary society are products of ideological forces which blow in the cultural “air” we breathe. These ideologies, in turn, are rooted respectively in a prior ontology. Hence, dealing with modern philosophy (genealogically or otherwise) is a matter of first importance. Identifying and understanding the arbitrary developments in the history of western thought which have given rise to these various ideologies, and pointing them out to others, becomes urgent.

I see three movements in the history modern philosophical thought in the west:

  1. The Cartesian attempt to found objective knowledge through the establishment of a stable subject.
  2. Kant’s building upon this foundation, giving rise to his “Copernican Revolution” in which the creation[*] becomes even more remote from the mind of man due to the conclusion that nothing of the creation can be known apart from the a priori structures of reality which imposed upon it by the knowing subject. (A subplot in this movement away from creation is the “second wave” of distancing in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, all of whom in their own ways posit forces external to the human subject which determine our assumptions, choices, and actions, and habits.)
  3. The postmetaphysical turn to language brings us up to the present moment, with dissident voices such as the neoHegelian Marxist Slajov Zizek resisting the likes of poststructuralist “hangers on” such as Judith Butler, the former attempting to bring us back to (a Hegelian) ontology.

To each of these chapters of the story, how would Thomas Aquinas respond? Where does he stand in opposition? In what ways does his thought affirm each movement, perhaps in a qualified way, perhaps with a “yes, but …”?

Of course, this effort on my part will require that I also (perhaps first) address issues surrounding the interpretation of Thomas himself. Is my current approach (imbibed from the font of Fergus Kerr and Henri de Lubac, filtered primarily through the prism of Radical Orthodoxy) the most compelling, the most comprehensive, the most historically attentive, the most theologically grounded?

For example, many people today have specific notions of their bodily self-image which are (arguably) empirically destructive (eg, perceptions of being fat or assumptions about sexual identity or practice). Where do these ideas and perceptions come from? They are not necessary; they are not (when scrutinized critically) obvious. This, it seems to me, is a significant “grain of truth” in the work of Judith Butler, for example. But what are the ideologies which hand us our self-images viz a viz our bodies?

Further, what are the ontologies in which these ideologies (and counter-ideologies) are rooted? This, it seems to me, is the first step in developing the resources to resist (some of?) these ideologies, and in this way to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:1-2).

My suspicion is that a non-foundationalist, yet deeply traditional, reading of St. Thomas would greatly help in this endeavor. Exactly how, however, I do not yet fully know.

[*] I intentionally use the theological term “creation” implying that philosophy without presupposing theology is a lost cause.


_The Dharma Bums_ & Marxism

Basic to Marxist thought is “relations of production,” referring to the webs of relationships which people must enter into in order to (re)produce their means of life (survival). The Dharma Bums tries (among many other things) to highlight the possibility of living life outside of this web, outside of these relations of production.

For example, most of the bhikkhus in the book consciously try to minimize their need for income, material possessions, etc., in an effort to avoid dependence upon others for their survival.

Near the end of the book when Ray goes to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in order to work as a “fire-watchman,” he struggles initially at the need subserviently to submit to the orders of his supervisor at his new job at the “Parks and Wildlife” office. At this point in the story one begins to think that Ray is falling prey to the supposed violence of the relations of production. Not so, however: Ray is not enlisting in this new position out of a slavish need to survive, but rather as an excuse to meditate (as well as an attempted faithfulness to his friend / mentor, Japhy Smith).

At this level, then, one might see the Dharma Bums as providing an alternative to the Marxist insistence on the inevitability of the relations of production. However, upon deeper reflection sees that this is not the case. Most or all of the bhikkhus in the Dharma Bums come from a social / familial background of privilege: all are white and well educated. As Ann Douglas points out in her introduction, all are male. (Indeed, one pervasive criticism against Karouac many of his peers in this cultural milieu is their sexism.) Ray, for one, leans upon his mother & father for various forms of support. Something similar can no doubt be argued for in the case of Japhy.


PhD App: Intellectual Autobiography (rough draft)

Dear scholarly friends, I would invite your critique and assessment of this, below, as a part of my application to begin PhD studies in the Fall of 2012. Thanks in advance.

Had one asked me in the early 1990’s why I wanted to study philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Texas I probably would have responded (having been raised in a fundamentalist environment but having cut my teeth in high school on CS Lewis) with an answer having to do with wanting defend the truth of the Bible.

At some point, however, during my junior year of college, in the middle of Louis Mackey’s class on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I began to realize that my entire paradigm of truth and reality needed reframing. Up to that point I had assumed (or been taught to think) that “the good guys” where those who, like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, could be construed as affirming some theory of “absolute truth” … which meant that the “bad guys” were the detractors of absolute truth: those evil “relativists.”

What Mackey’s class showed me is that, in fact, both “absolutism” and “relativism” are human constructs, and, as such, are open to deconstruction. That is, both are susceptible to relativization in light of what Kierkegaard calls the Absolute Paradox. Both are equal and opposite instances of a false dichotomy, what Aristotle calls “contrary propositions within a common genus.” For this (at the time) 21-year old Texan, this was an earth-shattering realization, one which would serve as a “litmus test” for all subsequent philosophical and theological considerations.

My desire to “defend the truth of the Bible,” in other words, overlooked the necessity of interpretation as itself an issue. My stance was too simplistic.

In exposing this false dichotomy Professor Mackey (author of Kierkegaard: a Kind of Poet and Peregrinations of the Word: Essays in Medieval Philosophy) showed me the power of “tertium quid thinking.” As for relativism and absolutism so also for socialism and capitalism, idealism and realism, liberalism and conservatism, etc. In this way Mackey set me up perfectly for the study of both Reformed theology and Radical Orthodoxy, and by the end of his class I knew that was I needed to do next was to study theology.

At Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the late 1990’s I was immersed in the biblical texts (in Greek and Hebrew) and in the venerable, rigorous tradition of Reformed theology. It was there and then that I began deeply to reflect on the relationship between diachronism and synchronism, between the “messiness” of biblical testimony and systematic theology, between God’s unfolding actions in history and God’s extra-temporal life. I am forever grateful for the Reformed emphasis on covenant as a structuring device for the relationship between God and God’s people. To this day I stand in deep respect of Calvin, while at the same time distancing myself from (historic) Presbyterianism’s affirmation of Augustine’s “soteriology” over his “ecclesiology.” Even at Westminster I was beginning to see that ecclesiology (and therefore liturgy and sacrament) are central.

Both in terms of covenant and ecclesiology I began to discern a certain priority of the corporate over the individual. John Zizioulias and others convinced me that, in fact, there is so such thing as a solitary human individual, but that, rather, we are all persons, by definition structured for relationship and community.

Near the end of my time at Westminster I was introduced to Radical Orthodoxy. Both as a non-fundamentalist critique of secular modernity and as a “non-identical repetition” of ancient and medieval tradition (most notably Augustine and Aquinas), this movement continues to display the necessary resources to move theology into the post-Christendom future, thereby creating the conditions (to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre) for a new Saint Benedict-like culture which could provide a beautiful and compelling alternative to the secular, market-driven nihilism of our disenchanted world.

Most of my grappling with Radical Orthodoxy has occurred in the context of pastoral ministry, thinking about the church’s role in the world we inhabit. I am convinced that what the world needs to see is a community whose life has been made more human by Christ. This involves what Milbank describes as “a more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialized, even a more ‘Platonic’ Christianity.”

Over the decade (roughly) since seminary, I have stayed fresh intellectually, not only in an intentional effort to remain viable in light of desired PhD work, but also simply because it is the only way I know to live. I must be reading; I must be learning; I must be dialoging with others. Hence, in the intervening period since my M.Div. I have learned two classical languages (I find that language learning provides one with a certain heuristic insight into all sorts of connections in a way that few other endeavors do). I have studied at an Episcopal seminary as a part of my transition from Presbyterianism into Holy Orders as a Priest. I have read MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, Hadot, Foucault, Marion, Zizek, Peter Candler, and Judith Butler, along with many others. I have interacted, in person and electronically, with renowned scholars and movement leaders. All along the way, I have blogged, not so much to reach others but for my own cognitive wellbeing. My blog has proven a powerful way for me to process my thoughts, to chronicle my journey, and to interact with others who are grappling with similar issues.

Finally, I must stress my liturgical formation in the catholic tradition, particularly as a priest at the altar. If Catherine Pickstock is correct that, at the end of the day, liturgical language “saves” all human language, then surely the practice of the liturgy is paramount. Serving at the altar, performing the liturgy, celebrating the Eucharist over the last year has habituated my total person in deep and mysterious ways. It has allowed me to participate in the ecstatic life of God not only with my mind but also with my body. Liturgical language is “system” of signs performed in and with our bodies.

If Pierre Hadot is correct that – for an important stream of tradition which weaves its way from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle, through Neo-platonism (Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus), and finally into the Church (East and West, ancient and medieval) – philosophy is “a way of life,”  then truly to be a philosopher commits one to concrete habits, material practices, and spiritual exercises. This, then, is the philosophico-liturgical life into which I have been called, from which I explore the world, and in which I continue my journey of fides quarens intellectum.