Qualifications: Edinburgh University: 1968-72 (MA Ordinary); 1974-77 (BD First class honours summa cum laude); Durham University: 1980-83 (PhD 1983; DD 2004).
Academic Employment and Fellowships: (Full-time) 1991-2001: Dean of Chapel & Director of Studies in Theology, King's College, Cambridge; 2002-03: Associate Professor (Lector) in Practical Theology, University of Aarhus; 2004-13: Lady Margaret Professor, University of Oxford; 2013- : 1640 Professor of Divinity, University of Glasgow;
(Other) visiting research fellow at the Kierkegaard Research Centre (University of Copenhagen), Summer Semester 1997 + 2000; 2010: visiting fellow, Stanford University; 2005-11: Visiting Professor in Systematic Theology at the University of Aarhus; 2011-: Visiting Professor in Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen; May 2013: Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College; April-September 2013: UK Arts and Humanities Research Council 6-month Fellowship.
A Philosophy of Christian Life
The project I am working on at the Kollegium is Part 2 of a 3-Part work entitled A Philosophy of Christian Life. This attempts an approach to Christianity that is philosophical in the sense that it does not presuppose the validity of any faith position. In contrast to much philosophy of religion in the 19th and 20th centuries the starting-point is not doctrinal claims (e.g. that God exists, divine attributes, that the evil in the world is compatible with divine goodness, etc.) but Christian practice. In the first part of the work, Phenomenology of the Devout Life, I examine the understanding of human existence inherent in the attempt to live a Christian, i.e., 'devout', life in a phenomenological perspective. Although the expression 'devout life' is associated especially with Francis of Sales and spiritual movements in 17th century France, I am taking these as exemplifying a set of attitudes and commitments that can be found across many centuries of Christian history, from the early Church, on through Kierkegaard and, via Kierkegaard, into the wider culture of modernity, Christian and post-Christian. This part of the work is now in the process of editing.
The focus of my research at MWK will be the second part of A Philosophy of Christian Life, entitled The Rhetorics and Politics of the Word. Here I turn to the issue of language and to how the event of the devout life being presented, communicated, and calling for interpretation in language transforms and extends the model given in Part I.
Typically, those attracted to the devout life or other forms of Christian living experience this attraction as a 'call' even if it is only in exceptional cases (such as the prophet Samuel) that this is heard explicitly as a voice. Accepting that this is nevertheless no arbitrary metaphor, my research will therefore start by examining more closely what is involved in the notion of calling (Berufung).
First, this will mean examining the special phenomenon of a religious calling in the larger context of language as such, looking at how, e.g., language acquisition involves being called, i.e., called by name—from the cradle onwards. Testimony of the importance of this can be found in, e.g., the autobiographical account of the deaf, dumb and blind activist Helen Keller’s acquisition of language as well as in scholarly discourse. As argued by the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, language has the essential character of vocativity and it is as a ‘call’ to ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ that our first words are frequently interpreted. As the phenomenologist Frederick Heinemann put it, our existence should be defined not as a case of ‘cogito ergo sum’ but 'respondeo ergo sum' with the consequence that even the fundamental experience of existing is properly understood on the basis of being called.
Since this situation shows us to be both 'called' and 'callers', the research will also look at how religious life is defined in terms of the capacity and desire to call upon God, paying particular attention to the Russian theological discourse on the name of God, developed in relation to the practice known variously as hesychasm, the Jesus prayer, and the prayer of the name.
The phenomenon of calling has significant implications for theories of the self as strongly autonomous and the research must also consider the relationship between calling and freedom, where, e.g., important insights are to be had from M. M. Bakhtin's notion of 'answerability' (otvetstvennost’). Responsibility and hence freedom are, on this view, generated by the expectation, implicit in the call, that I am capable of responding, i.e., acting responsibly in relation to what is said in the call. In this perspective, obligation is not in conflict with freedom and responsibility but is the condition under which freedom and responsibility are formed.
Following on from Bakhtin, the research will also consider the relationship between moral sensibility and language, with particular regard to the idea of the ethical demand in the thought of the Danish phenomenologist K. E. Løgstrup and E. Lévinas and the notion of conscience in Heidegger. However, as Heidegger's development in the 1930s shows, the question of calling extends beyond conscience in a narrow sense to the realms of the political and the poetic. In this regard the Hebrew Bible is again instructive, since prophetic calling is normally interpreted as a calling to deliver a divine message to society, often in relation to current political events and at the same time typically takes a powerful poetic form. Noting that Samuel's initial call is directed towards identifying, anointing and thus inaugurating the office of King in Israel and regimes in the Western tradition have often claimed sovereignty on the basis of divine calling. Prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah, however, experienced their call as a call to opposition to existing regimes. I condense this difference into the antithesis of empire and prophecy. Possible areas for research here includeVergil and, in the English tradition, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Blake, as well as Heidegger's reading of Hölderlin in the 1930s and his wrestling with questions of national vocation at both historical and metaphysical levels and Hermann Broch's exploration of empire and poetry in the novel The Death of Vergil.
At this point we see the question of vocation needing to confront the question as to whether political claims spoken in the name of vocation (whether imperial or prophetic) short-circuit what we now regard as the proper processes of democracy? Referencing earlier discussions of Buber and Bakhtin, Habermas now becomes a major focus, helping show how dialogical philosophy can be transformed into a paradigm for complex political decision-making. Here, however, the poetic and the religious seem to remain only as what Habermas at some points calls 'dramaturgic' or expressive possibilities, informing but not deciding the determining of norms and strategic outcomes. Rationality, it seems, overtakes and ultimately suppresses vocation.
This situation has particular traction with regard to the nature of religious doctrine. If it is a feature of doctrine that it is spoken 'with authority', in obedience to a divine calling, how can doctrine retain such authority in a thoroughly dialogized, democratized social order? Or, if we are attentive to the poetic aspect of vocation, should doctrine be re-thought as essentially poetic? But is such a poetic theology sufficient to inspire, encourage, and sustain hope? This question will be explored through the self-reflexively poetic theology of Ulrich Fentzloff (Der Tagebuch eines Landpfarrers).
Consideration of the poetic leads into reflection on the coincidence of calling and love and the third part of the project, 'The Metaphysics of Love' will therefore examine Dante's claim that the love that meets us in Chirstian proclamation is the love ‘that moves the sun and other stars’.
Kierkegaard and the Theology of the Nineteenth Century ( Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Kierkegaard and the Quest for Unambiguous Life (Oxford University Press, 2013)
Heidegger on Death (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013)
‘The Heart could Never Speak’. Existentialism and Faith in a Poem of Edwin Muir (Cascade Books, 2013)
Paul Tillich’s Philosophical Theology: A Fifty-Year Re-appraisal (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015)
Eternal God/ Saving Time (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Phenomenology of the Devout Life (in preparation for publication in 2018)
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien Universität Erfurt Postfach 90 02 21 99105 Erfurt