Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors #7: Dan R. Stiver

stiver It’s been awhile since I last added to this series on Theological Mentors.  As usual, Danny cannot be held responsible for my theological errors–since that’s doubtless due to my being a poor student. 

Dan R. Stiver currently occupies the Cook-Derrick Chair of Theology at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene, TX.  Logsdon and HSU are related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and is a partner institution with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  When I knew Danny, he was Professor of Christian Philosophy at my alma mater, The (old) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY (before the fundamentalist takeover of the early ’90s).

Dan is a product of Midwestern American upbringing (Springfield, MO) and of the old “moderate” or non-fundamentalist stream of Southern Baptist life.  He was educated at William Jewell College in Missouri, an institution with both Southern Baptist and American Baptist ties. He then earned his Master of Divinity at Midwestern BTS in Kansas City, MO.  He earned his Ph.D. in theology at SBTS where he was the last doctoral student of the late Southern Baptist giant, Dale Moody.  He has held pastorates in Missouri and Indiana.  A theologian with a philosophical bent (not all that common for the Baptist tradition), Danny taught Christian philosophy at SBTS for 14 years, from 1984 to 1998. (I arrived in his classroom in 1986–he’d had enough teaching experience to be confident and still enough passion and experimentation to excite students who were often  unsure why they, as student ministers, had to study anything philosophical! In the last year of college, I had discovered Karl Barth and so came to seminary with a decidedly anti-philosophical bent!)

I was worred that theologies which rely over much on philosophy, whether the Platonic metaphysics that influenced the Church Fathers (didn’t know there were Church Mothers then), the Aristotelian thought behind Thomism, liberal process theology, Kantianism, etc. were always diluting the gospel and distorting it–either in conservative or liberal or some other direction.  I found that Danny was far from naive about these problems, but that he believed that all theology must interact with various philosophical currents (ancient, contemporary)–even if they are wary of substituting a philosophical “foundation.” or starting place for the Church’s One foundation, Jesus Christ the Lord. Theology is interacts with philosophy as part of its missionary nature.

It was Dan’s genius to mentor students who took VERY DIFFERENT approaches to theology and were attracted to different philosophical currents: From evangelical rationalists who were disciples of Carl Henry, to process theologians (either in the form of the evolutionary theology proposed by Dan’s own teacher, British Baptist Eric Charles Rust, or in the more dominant Whitehead-Hartshorne school), to Marxist-inclined liberation theologians, to “post-structualist” Deconstructionists.  After freeing myself from an inordinate fear of philosophy (while remaining alert for the subversion of the gospel by alien thought forms), I found that my own philosophical interests were quite  eclectic: My deep  respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. led me to read the Boston Personalists and my fascination with Dorothy Day led to the very different Catholic Personalists, especially Jacques Maritain. My attraction to liberation theology kept me critically engaged with Marx (and heterodox Marxists like Gramsci, Bloch, and Enrique Dussel) and my interest in Jewish thought led to Buber and Heschel.  Dan encouraged all of this and more.

It took awhile, then, to grap Danny’s own philosophical interests, except to think he’d read everything and everyone twice over! (He hadn’t, but it sure felt that way!) Dan has strong interests in philosophy of language, especially religious language and has been a major dialogue partner in the modern/post-modern divide, without being wholly in the “camp” of either the Deconstructionists and Post-Structuralists (Foucault, Levinas, Lyotard, etc.) or that of the “Anglo-American” post-modernists (influenced by J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein). His first book, The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story (1996) mapped the lay of the land and staked out some of his own ground.  It is clear that the Catholics Hans Kueng and David Tracy, as well as the Reformed Juergan Moltmann and the Baptist Langdon Gilkey, as well as Dan’s own teacher, Dale Moody, were large influences. 

   It was also clear that Dan was attracted to narrative theology (an interest I shared), but more from the perspective of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) than to Hans Frei or Hans Gadamer.  I had stumbled onto Ricoeur myself both because of my strong attraction to narrative theology (Ricoeur helps one weave together narrative and liberationist strains in a way that I think Frei does not) and my commitment to pacifism–Ricoeur himself was a Christian pacifist–although still drafted into the French army in WWII. (Ricoeur was quickly captured and spent the war in a German concentration camp, teaching philosophy!)  But Ricoeur’s work is so large and so wide-ranging that I never knew what I  thought of the project as a whole. Dan was a tremendous help with his second book, Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (2001).

Dan eventually came to be part of my doctoral dissertation committee and, although mine was a work on theological ethics, he kept me seeing how my project fit into larger conversations in philosophical theology.  I THINK it was Danny who  once told me that there was a large difference between Christian philosophers who were trained first as theologians and those who, however theologically well informed, only had philosophy degrees. (Surprisingly, the latter are often more conservative than the former, as a survey of the Society of Christian Philosophy will show!) That’s been Dan’s main influence: introducing me to conversations and dialogue partners rather than teaching me HIS views on everything.

In fact, I still don’t know Dan”s views on a great number of things. I’d love to see him write his own systematic theology! I don’t know if he shares my Christian commitment to pacifism, although I do know that he is deeply committed to Christian peacemaking and  human rights and is a member of the Baptist  Peace Fellowship of North America. (We have to get Danny to one of our summer conferences, peace camps, sometime.)  I know little about his politics except that he is a registered Democrat and, like all true Baptists, a STRONG advocate for church-state separation and for religious liberty for EVERYONE. 

If I am a provocateur, Dan is more of a mediator. He likes to get people of very diverse opinions engaged in real dialogue and see if new insights emerge.  There is something DEEPLY, profoundly Christian about that and I hope I learn more of it from my friend and teacher.

August 9, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, mentors, peacemaking, philosophy, theological education, theology | 2 Comments

Title List: Popular Culture and Philosophy

This is not the first time  I’ve plugged (free of charge) the Popular Culture and Philosophy series of books by Open Court Press, but they are just so much fun that I can’t resist listing all the titles (and subtitles–which often involve puns). I wish there was a series of theology and popular culture books that was this well done and  this much fun.  Some of the authors of the chapters in these books are Christian, but many aren’t.  Good stuff.

  1. Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing. (2000). Ed. by William Irwin.
  2. The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer. (2001).  Ed. by William Irwin, Mark Conard, and Aeon Skoble.  (This is my favorite to date.)
  3. The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. (2002). Ed. by William Irwin.
  4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy:  Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale (2003). Ed. James B. South.
  5. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All. (2003). Ed. by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson.
  6. Baseball and  Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box (2004). Ed. by Eric Bronson.
  7. The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill, Therefore I Am. (2004). Ed. by Richard Greene and Peter Venezze.
  8. Woody Allen and Philosophy: You Mean My Whole Fallacy is Wrong?  (2004). Ed. Mark T. Conard and Aeon J. Skoble.
  9. Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts (2004), Ed. David Baggett and Shawn Klein.
  10. Mel Gibson’s “Passion” and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy (2004)., Ed. Jorge J. E. Garcia.  (I hated this film, which I saw to review, so much that I haven’t yet read this volume.)
  11. More Matrix and Philosophy: Revolutions and Reloaded Decoded (2005). Ed. William Irwin.
  12. Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Imagine (2005). Ed. Kevin S. Decker and Jason T. Eberl.
  13. Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way(2005). Ed. Tom Morris and Matt Morris.
  14. The Adkins Diet and Philosophy:  Chewing the Fat with Kant and Nietsche (2005). Ed. Lisa Heldke, Keri Mommer, and Cynthia Pineo.
  15. The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, The Witch, and the Worldview (2005). Ed. Gregory Bassham and Jerry L. Walls.
  16. Hip Hop and Philosophy: Rhyme 2 Reason (2005). Ed. by Derrick Darby and Tommie Shelby. Foreword by Cornel West.
  17. Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Thinkin’) (2006). Ed. Carl Porter and Peter Venezze.
  18. Harley-Davidson and Philosophy: Full Throttle Aristotle (2006). Ed. Bernard E. Rollin, Carolyne M. Gray, Keri Mommer, and Cynthia Pineo.
  19. Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think! (2006). Ed. Gerry R. Hardcastle and Geoorge A. Reich.
  20. Poker and Philosophy: Pocket Rockets and Philosopher Kings (2006), Ed. Eric Bronson.
  21. U-2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher an Atomic Band (2006). Ed. by Mark A. Wrathall.
  22. The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless (2006). Ed. by Richard Green and K. Silem Muhammad.
  23. James Bond and Philosophy:  Questions Are Forever (2006). Ed. by James B. South and Jacob M. Held.
  24. Bullshit  and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time (2006). Ed. by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch.
  25. The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think That Can’t Be Thunk (2006). Ed. by Michael Bauer and Stephen Bauer.
  26. South Park and Philosophy: Bigger, Longer, and More Penetrating (2007). Ed. by Richard Hanley.
  27. Hitchcock and Philosophy:  Dial M for Metaphysics. (2007). Ed. by David Baggett  and William A. Drumin.
  28. The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High Minded About Love and Haight (2007). Ed. by Stephen Gimbel.
  29. Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy: How to Philosophize with a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch (2007). Ed. by Richard Greene and K. Silem Muhammad.
  30. Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful With That Axion, Eugene! (2007). Ed. by George A. Reisch.
  31. Johnny Cash and Philosophy: The Burning Ring of Truth (2008). Ed. by John Huss and David Werther.
  32. Bruce Springsteen  and Philosophy:  Darkness on the Edge of Truth (2008). Ed. by Randall E. Auxier and Doug Anderson.
  33. Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy: Mission Accomplished or Mission Frakked Up? (2008). Ed. by Josef Steiff and Tristan D. Tamplin. (The revamped series was one of the few works of popular culture in America asking hard questions about the so-called “Global War on Terrorism,” and doing so with great science fiction.)
  34. iPod and Philosophy: iCon of an ePoch (2008). Ed. by D. E. Wittkower.
  35. Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant (2008). Ed. by Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Drecker. (I can’t wait to read this one.)
  36. The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link, Therefore I Am (2008). Ed. by Luke Cuddy.
  37. The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy: The Wicked Wisdom of the West (2008). Ed. by Randall Auxier and Phil Seng.
  38. Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, and More Productive (2009). Ed. by Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch.
  39. Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: The Porpoise Driven Life (2009). Ed. by Erin McKenna and Scott L. Pratt. (OK, I love Jimmy Buffett, but I can’t stand Rick Warren and that is the WORST pun I have ever seen.)
  40. Transformers and Philosophy: More Than Meets the Mind (2009). Ed. by John R. Shook and Liz Stillwaggon Swan.
  41. Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy (And So Can You) (2009). Ed. by Aaron Allen Schiller.
  42. Supervillains and Philosophy: Sometimes, Evil Is Its Own Reward (2009). Ed. Ben Dyer.

Forthcoming in 2009: These works do not yet have sub-titles.

  • 43.  The Golden Compass and Philosophy Ed. by Richard Greene and Rachel Robison.
  • 44. Led Zeppelin and Philosophy Ed. by Scott Calef.
  • 45. World of Warcraft and Philosophy Ed. by Luke Cuddy and John Nordlinger.

Forthcoming Titles for 2010 and Beyond:  These works have not yet been assigned editors and authors, but have been approved as topics for the series.

  • Anime/Manga and Philosophy.
  • Soccer and Philosophy.
  • The Rolling Stones and Philosophy.
  • Martial Arts and Philosophy.
  • Twilight and Philosophy.
  • Monk and Philosophy.  (I’m going to assume that is about fictional detective Adrian Monk and not about the resident of a monastery.)
  • Doctor Who and Philosophy.
  • The Boston Red Sox and Philosophy.
  • Facebook and Philosophy.
  • Futurama and Philosophy.
  • The Onion and Philosophy. (Most humorous fake news website ever.)
  • Rush and Philosophy. (I’ll pass.)
  • Breaking Bad and Philosophy.
  • The Dark Tower and Philosophy. (I would have thought Stephen King as a whole would have rated a work, not just his fantasy series.)
  • Dune and Philosophy.
  • Neil Gaiman and Philosophy. (Who?).

You can suggest other titles at the website of Open Court Press.  Be prepared to argue the case.  I, personally, have suggested volumes on Mo’Town, Ray Charles, Bruce Lee (I think Lee  himself impacted the culture and raised philosophical questions beyond just  martial arts), and Columbo.


August 2, 2009 Posted by | books, philosophy, popular culture | 2 Comments

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

ThoreauUpdate:  A commenter says that I have several details in this post wrong.  I just used the Wikipedia article and the foreword  to my copy of On Civil Disobedience.  I am happy to defer to real Thoreau scholars.  Soon I will make the corrections indicated–although I do not think  they distorted the main emphases of this small birthday tribute.

Happy Birthday, Thoreau.  Born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, MA,  Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s truly great philosophers–and someone whose influence should be recovered today. Born to privilege Born, at least, to what would be considered “middle classe” today and educated at Harvard, Thoreau chafed against the conformity of his age and class.  He decided to live the simple life and his notes on this experience, published as Walden , helped to create the American tradition of simple living.

Walden is also one of the founding documents of the American environmentalist movement and Thoreau attempts to live in harmony with nature, rather than conquering it.

Another major area of influence is in nonviolence theory. It is not clear that Thoreau was a pacifist or had any theory of nonviolence, but he refused to pay the war tax levied to support the Mexican War because he opposed that war. [A commmenter, Richard, claims that this was only a local tax having no bearing on national affairs,  but both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy support my original statement. This poll tax was levied by the American government to help finance the war with Mexico.]  He was thrown in jail for his war tax resistance until a friend  an aunt (against Thoreau’s wishes) paid the fine.  Out of this experience, Thoreau wrote an essay which he titled, “Resistance to Civil Government,” but which has almost always been published under the title, On Civil Disobedience.  In this essay, Thoreau articulates the principle that one should resist obeying laws that one knows to be unjust (such as a war tax or the Fugitive Slave Act), but to be willing to pay the legal consequences of this disobedience.  By so doing, one does not support lawlessness, but nor does one cooperate with legalized evil.  One can also help in such a way to change unjust laws.  Thoreau called this voting with one’s entire life, rather than just voting at a poll on election day.

Thoreau influenced the tactics of the Abolitionist movement and many other subsequent movements for social change. [Again, commenter Paul claims this was not so, that it was Thoreau who was influenced by the Garrisonian abolitionists.  Once again, I checked with standard biographical sources such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It seems the influence went both ways.  Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, repeatedly published Thoreau’s essay, “Resistance to Government” and may have been the first to change the title to On Civil Disobedience.  So, at least, it would be fair to say that Garrison found Thoreau’s articulation and defense of these tactics of what was then called “nonresistance” and today would be labelled “nonviolent resistance” to be powerfully compelling and worthy of dissemination.]  These movements transformed Thoreau’s single act of conscience in resisting an imperialistic war (a war to expand slavery in the U.S., as he perceived the major  motivation of the Mexican War to be) into a strategy to be implemented on a mass scale.  He influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way. Thus, Thoreau, a thoroughgoing indidualist, laid important groundwork for mass movements of nonviolent social change.

We live in an era of mass conformity–and Thoreau reminds us that nonconformity has deep roots in American culture. We live in an age of such consumerism that consumer activity accounts for 70% of the economy and economists from left to right eagerly await the American consumer to “regain confidence”” and return to patterns of debt-financed personal spending to jump-start economic recovery–and Thoreau reminds us that accumulating THINGS is not the way to happiness.  We live in an era when close to 50% of our tax money goes for military purposes (when interest on current and past wars is added in and veterans benefits are included in the military budget)–and Thoreau reminds us that we do not have to choose to simply shake our heads and pay anyway–if we are willing to pay the price for moral resistance.

We live in an age of citizen apathy, when barely 50% of eligible voters show up at the polls and an increase of voter turnout is cause for great excitement–and Thoreau reminds us that this is the minimum of responsible citizenship, not its maximum. He challenges us, instead, to vote with our whole lives.

Henry David Thoreau speaks as strongly to our era as to his own and it would be good to recover this major American philosopher before American culture completely dissolves into militarism, consumerism, and absolute conformity.

UPDATE:   It’s ironic that Thoreau and his legacy are so neglected in American life today, considering that he was a major influence on such wide-ranging figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas  K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy,  Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, John Muir, and even Ernest Hemingway.  Thoreau is such an iconic American figure that he once had his own U.S. postage stamp, yet today he is mostly forgotten and would be denounced by the “mainstream media” throughout the land as an anarchist and heathen. (Can you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity would do to any public figure who admitted being influenced by Thoreau?) [Again, my commenter, Richard, claims that Thoreau is NOT mostly forgotten.  Maybe less than it appears to me, but I think he is far more neglected in the public schools and in public discourse than during the 1960s–despite the over 1 million visitors to Walden every year.]

To help the Thoreau revival, check out the Thoreau Society.  A DVD expounding Thoreau’s basic values and principles is available and is known as Life With Principle.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, consumerism, convictions, heroes, nonviolence, philosophy, politics, taxes | 6 Comments

Philosophers for Peace

Coming soon:  A series in which I profile major philosophers whose work has impacted struggles for peace and justice.  Pacifists and those whose work has contributed to the development of nonviolence theory will be given special attention.  As a Christian, I naturally focus most on Christian philosophers, but other persons of faith and non-religious thinkers will not be ignored or ruled out.

July 9, 2009 Posted by | ethics, nonviolence, pacifism, peace, philosophy | 2 Comments

Wanted: More Public Intellectuals

A traditional intellectual is a scholar, usually ensconced at an academic institution, who speaks and writes for other academics as well as teaching students in her or his particular discipline.

A public intellectual is different.  She or he engages not only (or even primarily) other scholars, but the general public–leading, provoking, arguing positions, helping a society engage the great moral and social issues of the day.  Now, a public intellectual  is not the first need of a society,  by any means, but all societies need them.  The prophets and sages of Israel were (among other things) public intellectuals.  So were Socrates, Plato,  and Aristotle. 

America has had, even in our short history, numerous excellent public intellectuals:  Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, Alice Paul, W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.  But we don’t seem to have many at the present moment –a time of great transition and, potentially, of great good or bad.  We don’t need more blowhards on the radio or cable TV–pundits we have in plenty. But we do need those engaged thinkers who can help us form a great national conversation on where we need to be going and what we need to be doing.

To be sure, our current president–whether one loves him, hates him, or (as with me) is somewhere in between–is the first public intellectual elected President of the United States since Lincoln. (Jimmy Carter has become something of a public intellectual–and peace and human rights activist—since LEAVING the White House, but he didn’t govern that way.  Bill Clinton had the capacity for such–and loves high powered intellectual engagement with a variety of people–but he dabbles. Neither as President, nor since leaving office, has he really sought to help  shape public conversations–although he claimed once to want to start a national  dialogue on race. ) But he can only be one voice and, as president, he cannot devote  his whole attention to the role of public intellectual.

The lack of strong public intellectuals is most notable currently on the political right (although from 1980-2001, the right had far more public intellectuals than the left or center).  With the passing of William F. Buckley of The National Review, there isn’t really a strong intellectual defender of modern movement conservatism.  I thought George Will would fill that slot, but the election of Obama seems to have so frazzled Will that he is no longer able to clearly articulate a reasonable conservatism.  Peggy Noonan, the closest thing to an intellectual  center for the Reagan admin., bravely keeps on, with help from Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, but they do not have a wide enough audience–and Elshtain’s credibility took a great hit from her endorsement of Bush II’s war policies. 

But the left and center aren’t much better off.  In previous generations, we had Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (yes,  we sometimes elected such public intellectuals) and many more, but few of that caliber are here today.  I can think of a few:  Princeton’s Cornel West, Georgetown’s Michael Eric Dyson, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, Martha Nussbaum,  Naomi Klein and Kristina Van Den Heuvel of The Nation, but that’s about it.  Virtually no prominent clergy (other than R. Lerner) are both sufficient theologians and well enough known by the general public to count–though this has not always been true.

We need more public intellectuals–and we need more public fora for the kinds of discussions about “Where do we go from here?” on any number of issues.  We have plenty of pundits, plenty of politicians, plenty of activists–but remarkably few well known public intellectuals. 

Unless, of course, everyone just wants to watch America’s Got Talent or Ninja Warrior and forget everything else. 🙂

June 27, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, moral discernment, philosophy, politics | 27 Comments