Philosophy Begins in Wonder

This last spring I decided that I wanted to try to write down my intro to philosophy lectures.  To what end, I am not sure.  There are, of course, way too many introductions to philosophy already in existence.  But, at least I'll be recording them for whatever future purpose.

Of course, a written text is not the same as a spoken presentation and facilitation of a discussion, so these are not exact copies.  And writing may mean I enter into more or fewer tangents (something I'm wont to do in class--some planned and some spontaneous).

Here, then, is a beginning:


“Now that despair has befallen me,” wrote the scholar.  Al-Ghazali lived in the eleventh century, in Baghdad, where he was a professor of law.  Al-Ghazali had set out to explore “the true meaning of things” and had discovered only doubts.  So many different people believed so many different things that conflicted with one another.  This disagreement “is a deep sea in which most men founder and from which few only are saved.”

Al-Ghazali had inquired into the “true meaning of knowledge,” looking for “that sure and certain knowledge . . .  in which the thing known is made so manifest that no doubt clings to it, nor is it accompanied by the possibility of error and deception, nor can the mind even suppose such a possibility.”

He realized that his senses could deceive him—“Sight looks at a star and sees it as something small” but, instead, it “surpasses the earth in size.”  He began to worry how you can tell the difference between dreaming and non-dreaming states and whether or not there was a “state beyond reason” that would make our normal experience seem like dreaming.  In other words, how could he trust his experience of reality?

Thus his despair, his crisis of doubt.


Al-Ghazali was not alone.

Six centuries later a French army man, fighting in the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, found himself spending the winter in Germany where he “stayed all day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I was completely free to converse with myself about my own thoughts,” which led him down a path to a crisis of doubt similar to al-Ghazali.

The Frenchman, Rene Descartes, later reflected upon his day of thinking, “Several years have now passed since I first realized how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true.”  Like al-Ghazzali he realized that he was deceived by his senses and couldn’t distinguish, with certainty, the difference between dream and awake states, but his greatest fear was that maybe the entire world had been designed in order to deceive him.

How do I know that [God] did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bringing it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now? 

What if God were not “supremely good” and the “source of truth” but was rather “an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me.”

Descartes imagined a nightmare but dreaded being awakened to once again be plunged into these frightening doubts.


Al-Ghazali and Descartes were both worried that the world doesn’t make sense, that there is no meaning or purpose to our lives, to existence.  They express a powerful anxiety.

Has your experience of the world ever compelled you to doubt that there is any meaning or purpose?  Maybe the existence of horrendous evils like genocide or mundane sufferings like hunger and poverty and disease alarm your sense of what is fair and right and good?

If so, then you have engaged in philosophical thinking.

Sure, philosophy is an academic discipline with its standard textbooks and teachers, but more broadly philosophy is the human exercise of trying to make sense of our world.  To that broader human endeavor painters, songwriters, poets, filmmakers, novelists, dancers—even plumbers and physicians and day care workers—have contributed.

Consider Michelangelo’s famous painting from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of The Creation of Adam.  Gazing upon that painting (or more likely a copy of it) what messages about human nature, the world, and truth does it arouse in you?

Contrast that with something like Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  What is different here?   

Or listen to the closing minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the great “Ode to Joy” with lyrics taken from a poem by Friedrich Schiller.  What possibilities are suggested by the exuberance of the music?

Contrast that with Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of black people in the American South.  Or Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.”  If the latter is “true” than can the joy of Beethoven’s symphony also be “true?”


And, so we are left with these questions that arise from trying to make sense of our world.  Questions like “What is real?”  “What is true?”  “What can we know?”  “What is the good life?”  And many more.

These are philosophical questions. 

Does philosophy, then, begin in doubt and despair and anxiety?

I don’t think so.  At least not for everyone.  I believe it begins someplace else.

Have you ever observed a toddler exploring the world?  Walk along a sidewalk with a young child, and she or he will stop every two steps to listen to a dog bark, watch a passing automobile, pick up a leaf, stare at a robin gathering worms in the yard, and about twenty other things all in a just few minutes.

“Philosophy begins in wonder,” Alfred North Whitehead wrote.  He was a philosopher who lived and wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

As we grow up, many of us begin to lose our sense of wonder and imagination.  The despair that al-Ghazali or Descartes grappled with can arise when something bad happens to us or we observe ways in which the world is not fair or good.

Maybe philosophy exists in the interplay between our childhood wonder and our grown up doubt?


For Whitehead, “Philosophy is akin to poetry.”

Poets observe the world and create metaphors and images to describe their experiences, aware that no words can ever fully grasp the reality, though they try their best.

Philosophers do something similar (even if few philosophers are poetic writers, or even great writers, but there are a few!).  They use the concepts of reason in an effort to describe and understand and make sense.

Philosophy begins in wonder at our experience of the world around us and then endeavors to construct a worldview that is consistent, coherent, adequate in interpreting experience, and applicable to the broad range of our lives.  What do I mean?

To be consistent means that your beliefs and ideas contain no direct contradictions.  You can’t, for instance, believe that moral rules are absolute while at the same time saying “Too each his own” (even though I’ve known plenty of people who do precisely that).

To be coherent means that everything you believe must fit well together.  This is a looser criterion than consistency, but very important.  You don’t want ideas that fit so uncomfortably together that the tension is problematic.  For instance, is it coherent to be pro-life about the topic of abortion and pro-death penalty?  Maybe, but even asking the question should compel you think about how to make those and similar ideas fit together into a coherent whole.

You also don’t want big holes in your belief system, which is what the criterion of adequacy means.  You want a worldview that has grappled with all the big topics and questions and not simply ignored them because they are difficult.  So, do you believe that God exists?  Why or why not?

Finally, your beliefs should apply to your life.  You should actually be able to use them to solve problems and figure out what to do.

This, I believe, is a very important criterion because I believe that the ultimate goal of studying philosophy is to become a better person.


So, I invite you to join me on a journey as we explore the nature of reality, the scope of human knowledge, and the nature of a good human life.  Can we make sense of the world, avoid despair, reignite our wonder, and become better people? 

If so, then that’s a grand adventure. 

Let’s begin outside a courthouse in the ancient Greek city of Athens were a guy name Socrates is on his way into court when he runs into an acquaintance name Euthyphro who happens to be a priest.  Socrates think Euthyphro might help him solve a problem relevant to why he’s been called to court.  And so begins a conversation.

Intellectual orgasm

"Nothing in existence is conceivable in itself, as an individual, such as the tode ti [should be in Greek letters] of Aristotle, since even God exists thanks to an event of communion."  "The being of God is not an ontological necessity . . . but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom."

As I began reading John Zizioulas' Being and Communion yesterday afternoon, I had something akin to an intellectual orgasm.

Zizioulas argues that the concepts of person and personal identity and the associated idea of freedom--ideas we so often associate with the Enlightenment and Kant--were the creation of Patristic theology as it wrestled with the ontological nature of God.  Personhood is rooted in a Trinitarian and eucharistic theology.

I've long had some difficulties with the Trinitarian formulations of the ancient creeds and this book may be shedding new and revealing light upon them for me in a way that I can embrace them more fully.  Stay tuned.



Never Mind

When Edward St. Aubyn's novel Mother's Milk was receiving such accolades, I decided that at some point I should read the whole series of Patrick Melrose novels, which ended up at 5.  A sabbatical is a good time to catch up on some things one has been intending to do, so I ordered this collected series, among a number of other books.

Last night I began reading the short first novel, Never Mind, and completed it in a bout of insomnia.

The novel, set in a French country house with upperclassmen English men and their ill-treated women, centers around the child Patrick, who is supposed to be based upon the author and the story--of childhood rape and horrible parentage--is supposed to reveal autobiographical details.  Talk about getting back at your parents, who deserved it.

Frankly, none of the characters is the novel are the least redeeming.  Nor was the story enjoyable.  But St. Aubyn writes fine sentences and paragraphs, so I'm going to proceed onto the next novel in the series, Bad News.

Today in Sabbatical News

A day both lazy and productive, as I finished one book by a Reformed evangelical--Smith's Imagining the Kingdom--read from start to finish a book by an 11th century Muslim scholar--al-Ghazali's Deliverance from Error--and began a work of Greek Orthodox theology--John ZizioulasBeing as Communion--which has given me an intellectual orgasm just in the opening pages.

Besides all that reading I enjoyed my morning walk, cooking breakfast for my family, doing laundry, picking up around the house, getting my hair cut, and going to lunch with some clergy friends.

I also, after finishing Smith's book, worked on reimagining First Central's worship design and planning process, a task I set myself while attending Marcia McFee's Worship Design Studio in April.

So, a pretty full day.

Tomorrow I hope to begin writing a philosophy book I intend to model on my classroom lectures at Creighton.

Yesterday, by the way, I did write a short story.  A month or so ago I saw a news article about radioactive boars ravaging the countryside around Fukushima and sent it to my friend Marty Peercy with the comment that I'd enjoy seeing Don DeLillo's take.  Marty suggested that a few of us use the news story as a writing prompt and assemble the short stories for an anthology published by Literati Press. While walking at Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge yesterday, my story idea came to me and I wrote the first draft when I returned home.

Deliverance from Error

Al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalal)Al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error by أبو حامد الغزالي - Al-Ghazali
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have referenced al-Ghazali in my teaching of Descartes, as al-Ghazali also experiences an existential crisis of doubt in his search for certainty--six centuries before Descartes. I had wanted to read the full original work as prelude to a philosophy writing project I intend to begin while on my sabbatical.

This is a spiritual and intellectual memoir as the 11th century thinker records his own deliverance from error as he explores various intellectual traditions and settles upon the Sufi as the way to truth. al-Ghazali represents a rejection of the rational, philosophical approach embraced by other Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Sina and later Ibn Rushd, but al-Ghazali's is not a knee-jerk, uninformed reaction. He is well educated and delivers a compelling presentation of the limits of reason and the need for a way beyond reason in the life of faith.

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Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship WorksImagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smith continues his cultural liturgies project by exploring how worship works. First, he develops a view of the body based upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty in order to emphasize that worship must work upon the body (a kinaesthetics) and by working upon the body it shapes the imagination (a poetics). In other words, aesthetics is essential for the character-formation that occurs in worship. But aesthetics directed toward action. Secular and sacred liturgies both work this way and so the book ends with some encouragement to those who design and lead Christian worship to take all of these concerns to heart.

The only negative comment I have on the book is that it can be repetitive, but I think Smith has chosen that in order to reinforce his points, particularly for an evangelical audience for whom he is encouraging an embrace of traditional liturgy.

Smith is an engaging writer, bring a wide breadth of reading and experience (David Foster Wallace novels and Wendell Berry essays and the film The Rise of the Planet of the Apes) to bear upon these rich philosophical topics.

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My Antonia

My Ántonia My Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though I had read some Willa Cather well before the opportunity to move to Nebraska presented itself to us, and though I've been consistently reading Nebraska literature since we've moved here (Neihardt, Sandoz, Aldrich, Kooser, etc.), I had in fact never read My Antonia. I decided that was one thing I'd settle during the sabbatical.

But, I have to say, I didn't care for the book as much as I did O Pioneers (and I still think Death Comes for the Archbishop to be her greatest novel). Cather beautifully describes the plains and life upon it, but this particular time I wasn't as captivated by either her characters or her narrative structure for the book.

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Imagining the Kingdom, Chapter 3

Here is an excerpt is a rich summary of the content of chapter 3 of James K. A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works:

Our incarnate significance, our imaginative being-in-the-world, is governed by the dynamics of metaphor and narrative, poetry and story, which is precisely why liturgies are practiced poems, embodied stories, performed dramas.  Liturgies--those formative rituals of ultimacy--marshal exactly these dynamics.  Liturgies are formative because--and just to the extent that--they tap into our imaginative core.  As compressed narratives and tactile poems, the formative power of liturgies (whether secular or sacred) is bound up with their aesthetic force.  Such liturgies are pedagogies of desire that shape our love because they picture the good life for us in ways that resonate with our imaginative nature.  Over time, we are formed as a people who desire a certain telos because we have been immersed in liturgies that have captured our imagination by aesthetic means.  This isn't a matter of simply learning new ideas and content; it is a matter of tuning.  We are attuned to the world by practices that carry an embodied significance.  We are conscripted into a Story through those practices that enact and perform and embody a Story about the good life.

I would only add song to that list that includes poetry and story.

The Lure

Sitting on my porch this morning drinking coffee and reading Wordsworth I was lured to cast aside the plans for the day and go hiking in the break between the predicted thunderstorms.  I decided to have an early lunch at Harold's in Florence and then head north along the River with the idea of going to Desoto Bend, but after my roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and lemon meringue pie as I drove through the Ponca Hills listening to the birds sing, I decided to see how Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge was faring five years after the last catastrophic flood.  'Twas the correct choice.  Or, more pertinently, I followed the proper lure for today's adventure.


After the morning's rain everything was sparkling in the newly emerged sunlight.  Through the wetland meadows there were some sounds and smells that evoked childhood memories of walking with my parents--buzzing grasshoppers and the damp evaporating from the grasses.  Soon I realized I had forgotten to bring along my bug spray.

Undeterred, I walked over four miles through meadows and newly emerging cottonwoods and old dying trees and along the banks of the Missouri River where geese were sleeping.  Today I wished I was a birder who could identify the myriad species I saw and heard.



This is what a beginning of sabbatical needed--a day in sun and fresh air with birdsong and the smells of prairie grasses.  Clearly a cliche, but rightly so.

After my hike I stopped at Zesto's for a vanilla ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.

"Spare these courts of mystery"

My daily morning poetry reading has suffered since the birth of Sebastian and the loss of my longstanding morning routine.  So, one of the funs of sabbatical will be to take back my morning routine, at least for a while (and later in the morning after he's at daycare).

So, I'm well behind in my reading of Wordsworth's Prelude.  In today's reading from the sixth section, done on the porch on this lovely, damp morning, I enjoyed these lines:

She [Nature] ceased to speak, but while St. Bruno's pines
Waved their dark tops, not silent as they waved,
And while below, along their several beds,
Murmured the sister streams of Life and Death,
Thus by conflicting passions pressed, my heart
Responded; "Honour to the patriot's zeal!
Glory and hope to new-born Liberty!
Hail to the mighty projects of the time!
Discerning sword that Justice wields, do thou
Go forth and prosper; and, ye purging fires,
Up to the loftiest towers of Pride ascend,
Fanned by the breath of angry Providence.
But oh! if Past and Future be the wings
On whose support harmoniously conjoined
Moves the great spirit of human knowledge, spare
These courts of mystery, where a step advanced
Between the portals of the shadowy rocks
Leaves far behind life's treacherous vanities,
For penitential tears and trembling hopes
Exchanged--to equalise in God's pure sight
Monarch and peasant: be the house redeemed
With its unworldly votaries, for the sake
Of conquest over sense, hourly achieved
Through faith and meditative reason, resting
Upon the word of heaven-imparted truth,
Calmly triumphant; and for humbler claim
Of that imaginative impulse sent
From these majestic floods, yon shining cliffs,
The untransmuted shapes of many worlds,
Cerulean ether's pure inhabitants,
These forests unapproachable by death,
That shall endure as long as man endures,
To think, to hope, to worship, and to feel,
To struggle, to be lost within himself
In trepidation, from the blank abyss
To look with bodily eyes, and be consoled."

Now, to reclaim my morning walk!

Imagining the Kingdom: Part I

In this second volume of the planned three of Cultural Liturgies, Smith is developing a liturgical anthropology--his term--"human beings [are] 'liturgical animals,' creatures who can't not worship and who are fundamentally formed by worship practices."  Part One explores a Philosophy of Action based upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu that is critical of the intellectualist tradition rooted in Descartes.  Again, I felt that James and Whitehead could contribute to Smith's project. 

Here is a good summary statement: "an adequate liturgics must assume a kinaesthetics and a poetics, precisely because liturgies are compresses, performed narratives that recruit the imagination through the body."

Or, more simply, "Ritual is the way we (learn to) believe with our bodies."

I appreciated a discussion of how teaching a child how to sit and behave at the table is  also "unconsciously absorbing a social imaginary, a picture of social order, a vision of the good life."

Finding a Rhythm

Time to begin finding a rhythm for this sabbatical.

Last Friday evening I returned from Atlanta and the Festival of Homiletics, needing a break from preaching and social justice issues.  When Sebastian awoke from a nap and saw me he screamed an angry, confused scream.  Only when I held him did he finally feel comforted--I was really home.

The weekend involved graduation parties, resting, recovering, and doing laundry.  Sunday morning I performed a graveside service for the father of a congregant.  'Twas strange to drive past my own church twice that morning suited up and carrying a Bible to go elsewhere and perform a sacred rite.  A funeral brunch occupied the mid-day, making Sunday feel not to unlike a normal Sunday (sacramental afternoon nap included).

This morning I had a dentist appointment (two fillings) and have a phone appointment at 11 a.m. with a once-child from a previous congregation to discuss some philosophical issues.  In between I've mowed the lawn.  Today, then will be taken up with some routine chores.

Only 4 of the eleven sabbatical weeks will I be gone.  Seven of those I'll be here, and I don't want them consumed with routine chores, so I'll need a find a rhythm for reading, writing, and accomplishing some of the projects and tasks I've set myself.  Blogging from the front porch, as I await my call, is pretty cool.

Last night's Game of Thrones was the best of the season and contained the most moving death of the series.

Today after reading more in James K. A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom and then sitting in the dentist's chair watching the television commercials with little sound, I was struck by all the ways the commercials were shaping desire precisely as Smith discusses.  I ponder the ways I've been shaped by and also shaped to resist such enticements and temptations and also ponder if I'm doing as well by my child.  I think so, so far.

Hip-Hop & the Church

I was intrigued by this passage from Otis Moss, III's Blue Note Preaching:

Now remember that Hip-Hop is the first cultural creation that does not explicitly come out of the church. . . .  Hip-Hop is standing outside of the church looking in the window because no one is raising questions about poverty and deindustrialized urban landscapes . . . .   Young people become the Griot to be able to speak prophetically when preachers said, "We will not speak."

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul WorldBlue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Otis Moss, III was lecturing at this week's Festival of Homiletics he encouraged all of us to study preaching from traditions that are not our own. I had already picked up this book of his, based upon his Lyman Beecher lectures. I like reading the books from Beecher lectures.

Also interesting in this volume are four sermons, including two delivered after key moments in the Michael Brown saga, which give insight into his moving and successful homiletic style.

There are some techniques I will borrow from.

He talks about preachers as "artists and academics, weaving together poetry and pragmatic wisdom for daily living." He declares, "We are called to place a word in people" and then emphasizes how words and sounds are the craft of the preacher. One thing I like about his lecturing and writing is this emphasis upon the artistry and upon the sound and not simply upon structuring a written text. He also says that you must be authentically you and deliver the words God has given you through your imagination. So, for instance, he resists those who encourage him to slow down in his preaching, for it is not authentically him.

He urges us to preach with a Blues sensibility, addressing directly what he calls the "Blue Note" moments of people's lives.

He also explores what lessons we can learn from Hip-Hop to apply to preaching in a postmodern age, he specifically focuses on "the embodiment, the space, the appropriation, and the rhetorical proficiency of the person who is communicating."

A quick read, an enjoyable book, with some profound insights.

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Seize the Freedom

"I came to Atlanta to out you," Yvette Flunder preached.  "There ain't no closet prophets."

Her sermon was focused on "What is the purpose of the Pentecost story?" She found three purposes.  First, the coming of the Spirit was to get them together.  Unity remains the biggest miracle in the story.  To find unity we must overcome the sin of absolutism and the sin of authoritarianism.

Second, the coming of the Spirit was to get everybody's attention.  Something public had to be added to the private spiritual experience.

Third, to give public witness they had to learn how to exegete the hearers.  The message must be hearable by the people.

Flunder's goal was to empower us to speak the Gospel and not be confined to preaching the text.  To let the Spirit speak through us, an idea she supported from her growing up in the African-American Pentecostal tradition.  "Once the Gospel was the mouths and lives of living people, not a Book.  The Gospel is in the book; it is not the Book.  We made a mistake when we put the back cover on the Bible."

"But how do we control it? someone will ask.  We don't."

Lauren Winner spoke next.  Here's was a lecture with practical advice on how to preach prophetically.  "We want our prophetic words to be healing words."  I imagine many attendees were like me.  After days of rousing prophetic calls, we needed some more craft talk, some more advice on how to do it well.

Winner taught "Our goal is to help people see the powers that hold them captive, imagine alternatives, and engage in practices that liberate."  We should ask, "What holds my congregation in bondage?"  Help people seize the freedom they already have because Jesus has already defeated what binds them.  "Faithful prophetic preaching can be received by the congregation."

Her advice, which she admitted was in a Hegelian tension with Flunder's was to stay close to the text.  That problems arise when a preacher preaches an issue and not a text.  


While listening today I've been pondering one concrete thing and one broader issue.

The broader issue is how difficult it is becoming not to sound partisan anymore when preaching.  If you believe that the Gospel means to welcome the stranger and immigrant, to care for the creation in the midst of climate change, to stand with African-Americans against the racism and violence of our nation, to oppose war, to believe that our gun violence is out of control and must be addressed NOW, to advocate for the poor, and to work for full equality of people who are LGBT . . . then at this point and time, even if it wasn't true 15 years ago, one political party advocates for those things and one (at least as a party, not as every individual member of the party) opposes every one of those things.

The concrete issue I've been pondering is what I must do when I return to Omaha to defend trans students from the abuses of our state government and the opposition of the archdiocese.  How will I call the government and church out publicly?  What language will I use?  What actions will I take?