American Aesthetics: Theory and Practice

Recently published by SUNY Press, American Aesthetics: Theory and Practice explores the distinctive contribution to philosophical aesthetics made by the American philosophical tradition, including especially philosophical pragmatism and process philosophy. What follows is an abridged transcription, lightly edited to increase clarity, of David Rohr’s interviews with the volume’s editors, Walter Gulick and Gary Slater. An abridged video of the interviews can also be viewed below.

Dave Rohr:

So I’m here with Dr. Walter Gulick, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Montana State University, Billings, and we’re here to discuss this volume that just came out, American Aesthetics: Theory and Practice, which he edited with Gary Slater. So thank you so much for being here and being a part of this interview. I want to start with a very broad question. A lot of people who see this interview might not have any background for understanding what this book is all about. So, could you say a little bit about your understanding of philosophical aesthetics? What’s its purpose? How does it relate to art, art creation, and going to museums and whatnot?

Walter Gulick:

Well, the basic idea behind the book is that there’s a very rich tradition within American pragmatism primarily, and to some extent process thought, that has been overshadowed by a lot of recent, more analytic approaches to aesthetics. There’s a sense of reclaiming the importance of the American aesthetic tradition for a number of reasons. One is that it’s a very comprehensive kind of approach where it looks at aesthetics, not just narrowly as about beauty as is so often done, but sees it as embedded in perception as such, and particularly in perception as it becomes more clarified. So for me, notions like coherence, for instance, a very basic notion to philosophy and to argumentation is basically an aesthetic kind of evidence. It’s based on a feeling of completeness and comprehensiveness and so forth. And there are lots of ideas like that that I think are essentially aesthetic in their character that get set aside when aesthetics is looked at only as a study of the arts and so forth. Now this book, American Aesthetics, is primarily about how aesthetics relates to the arts, but not entirely. For instance, there are three essays by Thomas Leddy, David Strong, and Robert Corrington that looked at aesthetics as connected to how we live our lives. I love that kind of approach. But there are sections that are about theoretical approaches to aesthetics. So we had people like Wesley Wildman, for instance, Robert Neville or Randy [Auxier) or Nicholas Gaskill or Gary Slater who are setting forth a broader theoretical approach to aesthetics. But they’re also, and this I think is very important about the book, there’s also an emphasis upon how it’s all practice.

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Biological Mutualism

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection portrays nature as red in tooth and claw, with fierce competition between and within species determining that only the fittest survive and reproduce. Or does it? Although the preceding interpretation predominated late into the twentieth century, in recent decades biologists have begun to appreciate that cooperation is how many species remain competitive and that mutualism between species is as successful an evolutionary strategy as parasitism.

Unlike parasitism where an organism like a tick or tapeworm exploits another organism, mutualism refers to an interspecies relationship that benefits both species. For example, almost half of land plants depend upon fungi to supply their roots with water and minerals, the fungi in turn receiving sugars from the plant’s roots. Many bird species share mutualistic relations with large animals like water buffalo and crocodiles, making easy meals from ticks and other parasites that prey upon the larger animals. Fruiting plants and the animals who consume their fruit also relate mutualistically: the animals receive sugar-rich nutrition while the plants’ seeds are carried far and wide, increasing their chances of reproducing.

In a new article in Theology and Science Stephen Scaringe and Wesley Wildman argue that the recent recognition of widespread mutualism and symbiosis between biological species is a harbinger of a deeper realization with profound theological significance: “at a fundamental level, there are no separate life forms … living organisms only come into existence contingent or dependent on other species and organisms, and every living entity is perpetually dependent for its continued existence on other life forms, which in turn only exist contingently on other life forms.” Recognition of our inextricable interconnectedness with other organisms can be destabilizing, upsetting our clear-cut personal and collective identities. Destabilizing or not, Scaringe and Wildman predict that the continued growth of biological and ecological understanding will soon render this conclusion inescapable.

Anticipating the widespread acceptance of the conception of life as mutually constituted and contingently existent, Scaringe and Wildman reflect on the theological implications of this dawning awareness. In particular, they suggest that this conception of life demands a thorough rethinking of the idea of free will, problematizes conceptions of salvation that depend upon a clear distinction between persons and their bodies, and challenges conceptions of humanity as exercising divinely given dominion over the rest of nature. If Scaringe and Wildman are correct that the idea of life as mutually constituted is destined to prevail, we can hope that this idea will lead, not only to a more profoundly relational metaphysics, but also to a humbler, more caring way of relating to the organisms and ecosystems that sustain all human persons, societies, and civilizations.

Theology Without Walls: A Milestone in Transreligious Theology

For those of you are tracking the transreligious theology movement, a new milestone has been reached with the publication of Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative (New York: Routledge, 2019). Jerry Martin, the hero of this fledgling movement, edited the volume, incorporating inspirational essays from many of the movement’s leading lights.

Cover for Theology Without Walls

Here’s what the Routledge site has to say about the book:

“Thinking about ultimate reality is becoming increasingly transreligious. This transreligious turn follows inevitably from the discovery of divine truths in multiple traditions. Global communications bring the full range of religious ideas and practices to anyone with access to the internet. Moreover, the growth of the “nones” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” creates a pressing need for theological thinking not bound by prescribed doctrines and fixed rituals. This book responds to this vital need.

“The chapters in this volume each examine the claim that if the aim of theology is to know and articulate all we can about the divine reality, and if revelations, enlightenments, and insights into that reality are not limited to a single tradition, then what is called for is a theology without confessional restrictions. In other words, a Theology Without Walls. To ground the project in examples, the volume provides emerging models of transreligious inquiry. It also includes sympathetic critics who raise valid concerns that such a theology must face.

“This is a book that will be of urgent interest to theologians, religious studies scholars, and philosophers of religion. It will be especially suitable for those interested in comparative theology, inter-religious and interfaith understanding, new trends in constructive theology, normative religious studies, and global philosophy of religion.”

The table of contents is in the book’s promotional flyer.

TWW flyer

Human Simulation released by Springer

Some of you are aware that my research efforts in recent years have included trying to make computational modeling and simulation useful for the humanities disciplines, the arts, the interpretative social sciences – in other words, the less tangible parts of the university, which are my usual habitation. A few of us got together to build computer simulations with such intellectuals, which was a blast. We present both these people’s simulations and their experiences of building them in a book. The latter is especially fascinating because building a computer simulation related to their field of expertise was a novel experiences for these scholars. That book has just appeared, and it marks a key point in the emerging specialization of human simulation.

Human Simulation cover

The website for the book describes the volume nicely:

This uniquely inspirational and practical book explores human simulation, which is the application of computational modeling and simulation to research subjects in the humanities disciplines. It delves into the fascinating process of collaboration among experts who usually don’t have much to do with one another – computer engineers and humanities scholars – from the perspective of the humanities scholars. It also explains the process of developing models and simulations in these interdisciplinary teams.

Each chapter takes the reader on a journey, presenting a specific theory about the human condition, a model of that theory, discussion of its implementation, analysis of its results, and an account of the collaborative experience. Contributing authors with different fields of expertise share how each model was validated, discuss relevant datasets, explain development strategies, and frankly discuss the ups and downs of the process of collaborative development. Readers are given access to the models and will also gain new perspectives from the authors’ findings, experiences, and recommendations. 

Today we are in the early phases of an information revolution, combining access to vast computing resources, large amounts of human data through social media, and an unprecedented richness of methods and tools to capture, analyze, explore, and test hypotheses and theories of all kinds. Thus, this book’s insights will be valuable not only to students and scholars of humanities subjects, but also to the general reader and researchers from other disciplines who are intrigued by the expansion of the information revolution all the way into the humanities departments of modern universities.

God Is… Released by Wipf & Stock

For those of you tracking my writings and wondering what my mystical philosophical theology sounds like from the pulpit, here is a book of sermons to answer that question (available on Amazon, too). I include below the back-cover information to give you a sense of what the book contains. Many thanks to Rev. Dr. Stephen Chapin Garner and Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville for their kind words about the book.

Your God is too small—way too small! What if God is not a human-like personal being but the God Beyond God of the Christian mystical traditions? What if God is the ultimate reality beyond all beings, including beyond all divine beings, indeed beyond all Being? It’s a mind-bending idea. Speaking of God as a human-like personal being is much easier but people who care about the deepest mystical understandings of God within our traditions need to make the effort to speak about the God Beyond God, despite the difficulties. This book makes the attempt to speak of the God Beyond God in the language of the sermon, using metaphor and potent imagery tuned to the existential intensities of human life. The God Beyond God is closer to us than our jugular veins, vividly present in every moment of our lives. These sermons are practical and moving, and they also resonate with the most rigorous theological understandings of ultimate reality. Their deconstruction of our convenient fantasies about a divine being make these sermons emotionally intense and perhaps not suitable for beginners in the journey of faith. But veteran believers can breathe deeply in the air of these meditations, relaxing into the bliss of engaging ultimate reality without delusions, without deflections, and without controlling the object of our worship.

God Is… is a gift. Not all sermon collections read well, because sermons are an interactive event between a pastor, a people, Scripture, and the Lord. Dr. Wildman’s sermon volume is that rare exception where the written word maintains the power and eloquence of what was first preached. There is a wonderfully poetic quality to his theology and biblical interpretation that encourages both reading and re-reading these messages.” —Stephen Chaplin Garner, Senior Pastor of The Congregational Church of New Canaan, CT; author, Getting in Character: The Art of First-Person Narrative Preaching

“When I heard Wildman give the first sermon of this book, in 1993, I was so moved by its fierce courage to say what most people only fear is true about God that I wept. Its original title was ‘God the Destroyer.’ The second sermon, then called ‘God the Friend,’ was just as shaking: who would imagine friendship so weirdly deep? Wildman is a naturalist, which is explained in these sermons, though not in so many words. But he is also a biblical preacher and a rhetorical genius, a Christian preacher in the great tradition. His fervent piety inspires as it breaks common symbols and symbolizes what most Christians barely grasp. These sermons are dangerous and oh so loving.” —Robert Cummings Neville, Dean emeritus of Marsh Chapel; author, Nurture in Time and Eternity and Seasons of the Christian Life

Effing the Ineffable Released by SUNY

The State University of New York Press recently released Effing the Ineffable: Existential Mumblings at the Limits of Language. This is the sixth volume in my Religious Philosophy series, and the fifth of six to appear. The last to appear, God willin’ and the crick don’ rise, is volume 3 on Science and Ultimate Reality.

The SUNY web page for the book describes the book as “A meditation on how religious language tries to limn the liminal, conceive the inconceivable, speak the unspeakable, and say the unsayable.” That’s about right. it goes on:

In Effing the Ineffable, Wesley J. Wildman confronts the human obsession with ultimate reality and our desire to conceive and speak of this reality through religious language, despite the seeming impossibility of doing so. Each chapter is a meditative essay on an aspect of life that, for most people, is fraught with special spiritual significance: dreaming, suffering, creating, slipping, balancing, eclipsing, loneliness, intensity, and bliss. These moments can inspire religious questioning and commitment, and, in extreme situations, drive us in search of ways to express what matters most to us. Drawing upon American pragmatist, Anglo-American analytic, and Continental traditions of philosophical theology, Wildman shows how, through direct description, religious symbolism, and phenomenological experience, the language games of religion become a means to attempt, and, in some sense, to accomplish this task.

Back to work!

In Our Own Image Released by Oxford

Oxford University Press recently released In Our Own Image: Anthropomorphism, Apophaticism, and Ultimacy. You can find out more about the book here. This is the second volume in my Religious Philosophy series, and the fourth of six to appear. The sixth volume, fifth to appear, is Effing the Ineffable, coming out with SUNY in mid-2018. That leaves just one more volume to get out the door: volume 3 on Science and Ultimate Reality.

Friends tell me they have been biding their time, waiting to see me write more directly on ultimate reality. In Our Own Image does that, in a comparative way, but also in a constructive theoretical way, working across disciplines and religious-philosophical traditions, as is usual within my home turf of transreligious philosophical theology and philosophy of religion. The Mystical Philosophy series is devoted to that task but supporters and critics no longer have to wonder what I think about ultimate reality.

Some of my books stay with me more than others. This one is like that. The insights documented in its pages strike me as stable – not a small thing – and potentially important for comparative philosophical analysis of conceptual models of ultimate reality.

I’m eager to get the final volume of the Religious Philosophy Series published so that I can move on to the Mystical Philosophy Series. But the Outreach Series is taking up a lot of time right now, with a string of books in the hopper. As usual in this business, everything is about time management and clear-headed goals. I’m pretty good at both of those things, but unfortunately they are not always in sync.

I hope a few people benefit from In Our Own Image. Theologians and philosophers are still getting used to the idea of transreligious theology, as well as radical multidisciplinary approaches to philosophy of religion and philosophical theology, I realize. But this is an accessible instance of these features and good opportunity to consider fundamental questions in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion.

Theology Without Walls

Open Theology has just published its special themed section on “Theology Without Walls” (also known as Transreligious Theology). The themed section is entitled “Is Transreligious Theology Possible?” and edited by the inimitable Jerry Martin. My article in this collection is here. The Table of Contents is below and you can find full-text versions of all articles here.

Here’s the introduction to my contribution:

Transreligious theology is possible. We have a manifesto in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Toward a World Theology. We have a large number of books and articles (including several of my own). We even have a systematic theology in the form of Robert Neville’s three-volume Philosophical Theology. The question is no longer if transreligious theology can be done; now we need to talk concretely about how to do it. With the latter issue in mind, in what follows I briefly discuss five helpful interpretative angles on transreligious theology, five valuable resources for transreligious theology, and five daunting challenges facing transreligious theology. I conclude with reflections on what it might mean for transreligious theology to transcend religion altogether, to become postreligious theology or even nonreligious theology.

Here are the contents of the themed section.

  • “Introduction to the Topical Issue “Is Transreligious Theology Possible?” by Martin, Jerry L.
  • “Theology Without Walls: The Future of Transreligious Theology” by Wildman, Wesley J.
  • “Transreligious Theology as the Quest for Interreligious Wisdom: Defining by Defending, and Teaching Transreligious Theology” by Thatamanil, John J.
  • “Theology Without Walls: Sic et Non” by Feldmeier, Peter
  • “Myself, Only Moreso: Conditions for the Possibility of Transreligious Theology” by Hustwit, J. R.
  • “Interspiritual Theology as a Radical Potential for New Vistas in Theological Thought” by McEntee, Rory
  • “The Breadth of the Riches: Transreligious Theology, Particularity, and Universality, Sydnor” by Jon Paul
  • “Multiple Religious Orientation” by Diller, Jeanine
  • “Is Transreligious Theology Unavoidable in Interreligious Theology and Dialogue?” by Gustafson, Hans
  • “Trinitarian Theology between Religious Walls in the Writings of Raimon Panikkar” by Denny, Christopher
  • “A ‘No’ at the Core of Life: Doing Transreligious Theology with William James” by Weidenbaum, Jonathan
  • “Without Boundaries? Deriving Pluralist Theologies for Projects Using a Theology Without Walls” by Watson, Anthony J.

Modeling Religion Project Funded

The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion is a world leader in applying computer simulation and modeling to the understanding of human religion. The Institute’s Simulating Religion Project has just received three years of generous funding support from the John Templeton Foundation. The funded project is called the Modeling Religion Project (MRP) and it is the sixth project within the umbrella of the Simulating Religion Project. I’ll be leading MRP, which involves IBCSR joining forces with colleagues at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University (VMASC), the University of Agder in Norway, Boston University, and Babson College in Boston. There is a suite of specialized consultants from around the world and a stellar advisory board to help keep the project on track with the best guidance imaginable.

MRP brings together simulation and modeling (SAM) experts and scientific study of religion (SSR) experts in a creative and ground-breaking collaboration. MRP aims to construct a simulation-development platform to support modeling the social dynamics of religion using cognitively complex agents. The Complex Learner Agent Simulation Platform (CLASP) will allow modelers to specify the cognitive, emotional, and social characteristics of agents, the causal architecture governing how those characteristics interact, the processes by which agents learn from one another, and the types of groups that agents can form—with no coding. This in turn will facilitate testing of theories of religion through virtual experimentation. A Civilizational Transformation Model (CTM) will be developed using CLASP to simulate the role of religion in large-scale civilizational change. The development of CTM will require conceptual breakthroughs in the integration of the major theories of religion and the interrelation of their postulated causal mechanisms in order to create the virtual minds of the model’s interacting agents. MRP includes a training component to introduce doctoral students and post-doctoral associates to the complexities of modeling religion using SAM techniques, and an outreach component to explain the benefits of SAM in SSR–including a documentary film on applying simulation and modeling to religion from the multi-talented Jenn Lindsay!

ExploringMyReligion.org is Officially Launched

emr_fbThe Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion has built an instant-feedback survey site for supporting research in the scientific study of religion. The site is ExploringMyReligion.org and it is currently being launched with a promotional campaign on Facebook.

ExploringMyReligion offers a punchy blog on issues related to the scientific study of religion. It’s central mission is to present surveys and give feedback to registered users. User accounts are anonymous and all surveys are connected together by an ID number that produces uniquely complex and rich datasets, which are rare and valuable for understanding religion in all its many forms.

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