On trying to be an Orthodox philosopher (part 3 of 3)

(Note: This is part three in a series written as a draft for a chapter I’m contributing to the forthcoming Volume 2 of Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (SVS Press). In part one (here), I talk about my early upbringing that set the stage for my interest in philosophy and in Orthodoxy. In part two (here) I discuss briefly the main considerations that drew me to become Orthodox. In this final part, I will discuss how becoming Orthodox affected my practice of philosophy and how things stand for me currently with respect to both.)

4 Philosophy and Orthodoxy

Having said some things (whose inadequacy I feel acutely) about the road that led me to become Orthodox, it seems to me worthwhile to reflect briefly about how becoming Orthodox has affected my conception and practice of philosophy. Three things in particular stand out to me.

The first is the way that becoming Orthodox led to what I might call the chastening of my conception of God. My general Christian as well as my philosophical upbringing (in a lineage linking me to philosophers like Alvin Plantinga) taught me to think of God as, basically, a very powerful person. Thus, Richard Swinburne, to take one example, says that “the most elementary claim of theism” is that “God is a person, yet one without a body.” This sort of thinking comes naturally, but is more or less explicitly anthropomorphic, and leads to an overly simple and confident understanding of God which is at odds with the classical tradition and leads most who accept it to reject traditional doctrines like the timelessness or simplicity of God. It was a significant struggle (and still is, to some degree) to unlearn this starting point and come to grips with the Orthodox emphasis on apophaticism, or our inability to know God as he is in himself, and the idea that God is somehow both beyond being and Being itself.[1]

The second, and perhaps most obvious thing, is the way that familiarity with Orthodox theology has opened up new avenues for research and writing.  So many distinctive doctrines or approaches to Christian life within Orthodoxy are relatively unknown and untreated within the philosophical literature. For example, one of my first papers, “Dispassion as an Ethical Ideal” (Ergo, 2018) started as an attempt to think through for myself an approach to the ethical life which is a key part of the Orthodox spiritual tradition but which struck me initially as difficult to understand at best and repulsive at worst: the idea that the highest virtue is “dispassion” or apatheia. Outside of relevant discussions related to Stoicism, the idea has not been much discussed. Or, to take another example, my most recent paper, “On Orthodox Panentheism,” tries to introduce St. Gregory Palamas’s essence-energy distinction within the context of recent discussions of panentheism as a distinctive picture of God.  There are many such topics which I think philosophers should spend more time on: asceticism, liturgy, apophaticism, the role of tradition, theosis/deification, Orthodox conceptions of evil and the fall, etc.

Finally, being Orthodox has helped me think more holistically of philosophy, not just as a set of interesting puzzles, or a possible career, but as a way of life; indeed, as a uniquely Christian way of life. Another very formative book for me was Pierre Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? Hadot argues that the ancient Greeks and Romans conceived of philosophy above all as an existential choice of life, and that what we think of as philosophy, philosophical discourse, was only one small part of a philosophical life, aimed at helping the practitioner better understand reality and live properly in the light of that understanding. This same conception of philosophy was taken up by the early Christians. According to the early Church Fathers, all true philosophers are Christians and all true Christians are philosophers. Christ is both the Wisdom and the Logos of God, so truly to love wisdom and follow reason is, in the end, to be a disciple of Christ.”[2] Thinking of philosophy in this way strengthened my fellow feeling for others on the same path, and gave philosophy a new dignity, while also putting it in its proper place. It would also serve as a help in changing fortunes.

5 On Almost Giving Up and Still Trying

Most conversion stories have the flaw of coming across overly rosy, if not triumphalist, and perhaps mine has been no different so far. But things have not been rosy. Though being Orthodox and being a philosopher have become so central to my identity over the past decade, my relations with both have been complicated, especially the past few years.

After getting my Ph.D. in 2017, I was a full-time visiting assistant professor at Siena College in upstate New York for three years. But despite a good Ph.D., broad teaching experience, and several good publications, I was unable after four years on the market to get an offer for permanent employment. After already moving across the country twice, and now with a growing family, my wife and I desired more stability and community than could be offered by who knows how many more years moving across the country for 1-2 years at a time taking post-docs or visiting positions until I got a tenure track offer. So we decided that for the sake of the family I would leave academia and pursue something else. This was devastating to me, and it happened just at the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

We moved back closer to family with two young children at the height of the pandemic. Not long after this, my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly. I was struggling, and I was completely isolated. My wife has not followed me in becoming Orthodox, so church attendance has always been less than ideal for me. Now I had no home parish and most churches were closed anyway. Even worse, I couldn’t help but notice a surging angry right wing presence in Orthodoxy, especially online, and watched in dismay as several friends who converted around the same time as me became hateful hyper-partisan conspiracy theorists, convinced their brand of extremely strict Orthodoxy is its only genuine form. Rather than the positive beauty I associated with Orthodoxy, everywhere I looked it became associated with ugly negativity.

It was a hard spot, and I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. Was I a failed philosopher? Could I even be a philosopher outside of academia? Was I wrong about Orthodoxy after all? Was I not really Orthodox, as my super-strict friends no doubt believed? Did I even want to be anymore?

These questions have plagued me for the past three years. They still do, to some degree. Thankfully, some light has begun to dawn, and the answers seem a bit more clear. I have started writing again, and have just had my first piece published as an independent scholar,[3] with several other projects planned. I have found a parish where I feel at home. I don’t know whether I am truly a philosopher or truly Orthodox. But “the gifts”–such as they are–“and the calling of God are irrevocable,” as St. Paul says, so I plan to keep on trying to be both.

[1] The Swinburne quote is from his The Coherence of Theism (Oxford, 1993), p. 101. I must give credit to David Bentley Hart for much help in this chastening process, especially his book The Experience of God (Yale, 2013).

[2] Thus, St. Justin Martyr says “Christ is the first-born of God, his Logos, in whom all people share. That is what we have learned and what we bear witness to…All who have lived in accordance with the Logos are Christians, even if they have been reckoned atheists, as amongst the Greeks Socrates, Heraclitus and the like.”

[3] “On Orthodox Panentheism,” forthcoming in Religious Studies.

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