I’ve been posting under the engaging section a series called Crazy Texan Monday; in the series, I’m pulling up some videos of Rick Roderick, a philosophy professor at Duke who died in 2002. I played the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ lecture from Roderick’s ‘Self Under Siege’ series to my Introduction to Religions class, using it as a transition piece between our talk about cognitive science and the study of religion and philosophy of religion. To be honest, I forgot how hard the lecture is and how easily it can shake young persons. After seeing the looks on my students’ faces after class, I decided I needed to write them a letter to begin to try to deal with the series. I’ve posted it below. I’m curious about how you take Roderick, what your response to him is, and how you want (if at all) to try to appropriate his insights as a genuinely believing Christian? Feel free to post comments below.
I feel after today’s lecture that I have a responsibility to you, namely, to explain today’s class a bit better. Today’s class was meant to be a leveling ground, trying to give you a feel for the truth of where we are culturally positioned, that is, how we culturally think of ourselves. The cultural truth is that we cannot believe anything outrightly; we think, rather, that there might be some ulterior motive, something sinister, something underneath anything we might want to believe, something playing to our economic positions, sexual desires, etc. While such ideas are often discouraging to talk about for the first time, keep in mind that they need not come to define us so completely that we lose either hope or faith that there’s something more, something better. It’s just that we are caught in a profoundly skeptical time, a time that we can even be skeptical about being skeptical, if that makes sense. In this regard, I have absolutely no desire to simply let those of you who are believers drown in the fields of disbelief, and we will both explore and struggle with this question throughout the remaining portion of this class, albeit never coming to any simple determinate answer to questions. But we will perhaps create some paths through which we might begin to move through it.
I also want to point out that those of you who are atheists are not off the hook either. Atheism has become something of a belief-system in recent years, a point by means of which many persons, maybe you, find something to stand for and fight for. However, the type of disbelief we talked about today is just as devastating to atheistic belief-systems as well. After all, how can you expect with certainty to trust that you are doing anything other than holding onto your own economic power, etc. This point is especially pertinent after reading Barret’s book, namely, that it takes a certain economic, cultural, and intellectual positionedness to fend off the desire to believe in religious ideas.
Heck, we can keep extending the points of unbelievability even further; certainly this account of suspicion calls into question the believability of the empirical sciences, that mainstay of contemporary culture that everyone wants to hold up as utterly absolute in its believability. But these accounts of our world and our place within it, while having some truth, can be “deconstructed,” shown to have economic and class implications. I mean, for God’s sake, we can even deconstruct this desire to deconstruct, showing its ulterior motives! The critique of our current cultural position is really an all-around critique.
The point of the lecture, then, was not to destroy us, but give us hope by destroying every simplistic interpretation of our lives…interpretations that don’t deal with the complexities of who we’ve become…and the meanings about our lives that we might want to hold in place. In other words, we have to begin to figure out our place in the world again, for which either religious belief or atheistic belief might have some strategies for us. But we cannot engage in this task without dealing with the arduous complexities of what we are and how we currently think about ourselves. And, I’ll also add that whatever strategy we take to find meaning, I do not believe, like many of my contemporaries, that we’re doomed; at any rate, not if I can convince you and my other students to take this task seriously.