“Cosmik Debris”

Some rambling on Religious and Political Matters.
(“Cosmik Debris” is the name of an anti-guru song by Frank Zappa.)

(Last revised June 2019)

TaoI grew up in the Methodist tradition, spent my high school years torn between fundamentalism and charismatic religious experience (while studying at a Mennonite high school; talk about a mixed up kid!), and ended up settling into being Mennonite after much struggle during college and graduate school. If you don’t know much about what a “Mennonite” is, here are a couple of helpful links:

No, I’m not the kind of Mennonite with a horse and buggy. I have a PhD and listen to Frank Zappa, after all. (Not that I don’t think we’d be better off with horses and buggies.)  I am currently associating with Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN.  (It’s more than a 90 minute drive from home; I’m trying to make it there once-a-month-ish.)

CraneCentral to my struggle has been a drift back and forth between what would be generally perceived as more “conservative” and more “liberal” (“progressive,” to most adherents) orientations in matters both religious and socio-political. A profound crisis point came early in graduate school, when I had jettisoned most substantive belief in Christian doctrine, the historical accuracy of the Bible, etc. As I studied philosophy, I became increasingly aware that my reasons for rejecting traditional Christian beliefs were untenable. In the midst of this, I found that I actually believed again in some deep sense. This was probably a more important turning point for me than when I “got saved” (prayed the standard “sinner’s prayer”) as a freshman in high school. I now tend to think that “belief in God” operates very differently than other sorts of belief. It’s more like a fundamental theoretical presupposition or a paradigm than a hypothesis or conclusion.

As I was growing up, my mother always said that the two things you shouldn’t talk about with other people are religion and politics.  My interests always tend to hover in the general vicinity of religion, but I have long hated talking about politics, and I spent a long time believing that I was at least following half of her advice.  Then I got a job at Hillsdale College, the reputation of which has a LOT to do with politics.  Sorry, Mom.  (Winky Face, LOL, etc.)

But I’ve found over the years that what was really going on in what I thought was hatred of politics was what Russell Kirk would identify as a deep antipathy toward Ideology.  If you don’t already know, you can look around at some stuff about Kirk to see that his sense of ‘ideology’ is somewhat specific, and especially not the same as Marx’s sense. It’s related to partisanship, or “parties,” that we are warned about by St. Paul and Nietzsche, among others.  Kirk sees this antipathy toward ideology as central to what he means by ‘conservatism.’  I have been profoundly shaped by a graduate school infatuation, and a conversation now more than three decades long, with several streams of putatively “conservative” thinking, especially with what is sometimes called “intellectual conservatism.” I have discovered what seems an abiding tradition in Western thought that emphasizes the finitude of human understanding, the impossibility of large scale social engineering, political blueprints, or wholly predictable social change. Merleau-PontyIt’s a kind of conservatism that’s represented, I believe, by folks as diverse as Peter L. Berger, Wendell Berry, Edmund Burke, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Hayek, Robert A. Heinlein, David Hume, Michael Oakeshott, George Santayana, and Frank Zappa (as well as Russell Kirk).  It is much more like a sort of fundamental attitude about what human beings are like, and how little they are actually capable of knowing, than it is a political outlook in any narrow sense.

You can view a blog post where I reflect on my “coming out” as a conservative here.  The 2016 election and its aftermath have made me more and more hesitant to use the term, however.  I would still sometimes say that I am a conservative in some senses, partly because it makes people uncomfortable (either that I would be *a conservative* or that *I* would be a conservative).  Being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing.  But I have absolutely no interest in being associated with what currently pass for “conservative” views on sexuality, gender, family, immigration, and other “hot button” issues.

You may have noticed that no women were mentioned in the listing of thinkers above.  I’m VERY aware of this, and do now see it as a big problem, and have become a serious reader of feminist thought in order to explore this.  (Judith Butler and Elizabeth Grosz are current favorites.)  I’m also paying a lot of attention to Queer Theory.


I mainly think about my faith within an Anabaptist/Mennonite framework.  (Theologian John Howard Yoder was an especially huge influence, but now I struggle deeply with how to think about his influence and friendship in light of his history of treatment of women, as well as struggling deeply with ambivalence about the institutionalized Mennonite world.  Documented disclosure of the full gravity of Yoder’s history, and of the responses of the institutional church, were emerging at approximately the same time as the publication of my book, For a Church to ComeSee here for the best single-article account, by historian Rachel Waltner Goossen.  More recent wounding experiences at the congregational level with the “handling” of such matters has made this struggle worse.

I have some significant Catholic leanings, and am currently rather horrified by the poverty of Protestantism in many of its dimensions, but I do also have a deeply Protestant ability to “sin boldly,” and an awareness that God’s grace (unmerited and unconditional acceptance) is experientially fundamental to my Christian commitment, and was so even in my fundie days.  I also have some strong Taoist sympathies for good measure. My reading of the Anabaptist tradition leads me to waver in a difficult tension between  more “anarchist” leanings (in a sense articulated most clearly by Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller) on the one hand, and more “communitarian” (neo-Amish?) leanings on the other hand.  Frequent disillusionment with that Anabaptist nexus has lately pushed me to explore affinities with the liberal (Hicksite) Quakers.  Yup, I just said both ‘Catholic’ and ‘Quaker’ in the same paragraph.  That’s how weird it gets.

CockburnI emphatically do NOT consider myself either a fundamentalist or an evangelical (in the current North American sense), but I do continue to take “orthodox” Christian doctrines (e.g., the affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed) very seriously.  I add that part about the Apostles’ Creed, despite my strong non-creedal inclinations, because so many “conservative” Christians now seem to talk as if orthodoxy includes being against same-sex marriage, supporting “proper” enforcement of bathroom usage, and fighting in an imaginary war defending a Christianized pagan holiday.  Nonetheless, the “fundagelical” persona is still in here; it’s a part of me that I must love if I am to love myself.

Underneath the doctrinal matters:  Since grad school, whatever else waxes or wanes, I tend to keep drifting back to what some call “classical theism,” which is most clearly exemplified by Anselm and Aquinas.  I was strongly influenced in this regard by the opening chapters of a book, The God of Faith and Reason, by Robert Sokolowski (see the summary of it on Amazon), and by a course that I took at Notre Dame on creation with Fr. David Burrell.  I’m sometimes tempted to think that I am more sure of being a theist in this sense than I am of Castoriadisbeing a Christian, but that’s probably because other Christians so often piss me off.

But more generally speaking, I find that my theism tends to be quite strongly Judaic / apophatic / Tillichian, for those who can appreciate these keywords. (Tillich. Another big moral question mark. <sigh>) What I mean by this, simply put, is that we are always trying to grasp God conceptually, but we never manage it, and we never will. I believe in what Tillich called “the God above God.” I can say it in several other provocative ways: To borrow Jacques Derrida’s phrasing, I “rightly pass for a theist.” I hesitate to say that God exists, though I believe that God IS. We can only know what God is NOT. Some people would say that the God implied by my views is not “religiously available.” That’s precisely the point, you see! I understand what’s meant by the claim that the “God of the philosophers” is not the “God of the Bible,” but I remain viscerally unconvinced. I fear that if I WERE convinced of this, I would opt for the former.  But I’d rather not have to choose.

I suspect that Nietzsche is right that God is dead, that we have killed him, and that we don’t yet have much of a clue what this means.  But I also believe that that dead God is not the God that I believe in, at least as long as “believe in”  here means “strive to believe in beyond whatever I currently believe in.”  I think that real monotheism is only possible as a constant and unending (in this life) movement out of idolatry.

So I am, in an important sense, both politically and theologically/ecclesiologically homeless. The German word ‘unheimlich‘ might be appropriate here with regard to the character of my spiritual life.

Yes, I know that some will ask: Why not just be me and not worry so much about what I am?  If you think you are doing that, I suspect that you’ve just found a way to be comfortable wherever you find yourself in the ambiguity, perhaps authentically.  I have often wished that I could do that, but am increasingly seeing it as OK that I cannot.  I’m not saying you should be like this; only that this is me.

KolakowskiI’m unapologetic about the fact that my beliefs do not cohere very well. Sure, some people will roll their eyes and yawn if I quote Emerson or Whitman regarding consistency, but I think they were on to something very important.  The individual self is (usually) a unity in one sense, but it is just as important to see it as a conflictual multiplicity.  I still think “beliefs” are important somehow, but I’m increasingly skeptical about whether the word ‘belief’ names a single kind of thing, and about whether belief (in the sense of assenting to certain propositions) is as important as we tend to make it.  If we have to believe the right things in order to be OK, then we’re all pretty much toast.

This condenses a long and rather complicated story in just a few paragraphs. I hope it’s enough to provide some genuine insight into who I am. It is meant only to begin interaction, not to replace it. I welcome your questions and responses.

My email is pblum@hillsdale.edu.

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