‘Belief and Metaphysics’ Conference, a diary

Posted by on October 5, 2006 at 9:30 pm.

Now that I am all caught up on reading, writing another paper, and test-taking, I can finally take the time to reflect a bit on the conference I attended. Back in March or so of this year, Conor Cunningham invited me to attend a conference in Granada, Spain called ‘Belief and Metaphysics’. A short time after, he invited me to present a paper there. After a little deliberation (i.e. “I am no where near being close to the same league as them”), I accepted.

[Photo credit: Peter Candler]

After some rather horrible travel incidents (lost passport, lost luggage, but found both!), my wife Tiana and I arrived around 6:30pm, Granada time. Due to our luggage being lost, retrieving it made me late for my own presentation at 3:45, but Guillermo Peris, a professor at the seminary where the conference is hosted, was rather kind and took care of rescheduling me with Conor to a later time. At 7:30, I presented my paper called “From Copenhagen to Cambrai: Paradoxes of Faith in Kierkegaard and de Lubac.” John Milbank chaired it, and he was very gracious and complimentary towards me about it, saying it was “rather good.” (I’ll save the posting of my paper and more details about his and other’s comments for another post. Also to come later is a full gallery of pictures of the proceedings and events.)

Concerning the conference itself, the people attending, the papers presented, the fellowship, and the food, the whole event was, in my opinion, wonderful. Conor Cunningham and Peter Candler, Tony Baker, Robert Miner, Oliva Blanchette, among others, were very welcoming of me– me being perhaps the most uneducated person attending the conference.

[Photo credit:
Peter Candler]

The topic of the conference was, as the title suggests, ‘Belief and Metaphysics.’ And, the quotation used to also set the topical stage was one by Paul Churchland: ‘Could it turn out that nobody has ever believed anything?’ On the second day of the conference, John Milbank’s paper on ‘Ontology, Religion and Terror’, prefixed by a very long ‘prolegomena’ the evening before, offered a guiding contour to the proceedings. Before him, Louis Dupré’s paper was excellent as well. Also, quite importantly, Conor Cunningham’s paper called ‘Trying my Very Best to Believe Darwin: The Supernaturalistic Fallacy: From Is to Nought’ spoke to the above Churchland quotation.

While it would be ridiculous to provide summaries of all the presentations I attended (just see the program to get a feel of the breadth and diversity of the crowd), I would like to offer snapshots of part of John Milbank’s talk, Conor Cunningham’s paper, as well as the last section of Merold Westphal’s presentation. John Milbank’s paper was quite good, but I would have to hear (or read it) again to do any justice to providing any kind of summary (I remember he dealt a lot with Scotus). But, a comment he provided in the question and answer session would be a good place to start.

After Milbank had read his paper, somebody in the crowd stood up and posed a question that expressed a nagging confusion about what the whole ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ thing is all about. By his own admission, he had come to the conference largely in part to figure out what Radical Orthodoxy is, and after a day and a half of presentations, and after listening to Milbank — Dr. Radical Orthodoxy himself — said commenter was still confused (I apologize for I never caught his name). He also asked a question about Aquinas I’m far to ill-informed about to repeat or remember, but Milbank’s response contained something like this: “[Henri] de Lubac is my hero in this regard. I never want to have a theology without metaphysics, nor a metaphysics without transcendence” (rough paraphrase). His implication is that he would much rather not be either a ‘revelational positivist’ on the one hand or a philosopher of pure immanence on the other; thus, a kind of ‘suspended’ theology and philosophy. [During Milbank’s lecture, he made a good handful of wry comments: see the picture below of Oliva and Louis smirking.]

Conor Cunningham’s paper on Darwin was extremely well-done. In sum, he believes that it is perfectly fine–even good!–for Christians to agree with many of Darwin’s observations and some of his conclusions, but he wants to stay clear away from many of Darwin’s followers who have taken his logic and twisted Darwin’s descriptive work into an acidic prescription for all reality.

Also, against Darwin’s disciples who have taken his ideas to an extreme, consider the following: One may observe a scene of a woman pouring tea into a cup on a table, and one may proceed to analyze the table and cup by breaking it up into its molecular and atomic parts, but one must not apply the same investigation to the woman for the purpose of explaining why she is pouring the coffee, who she really is, or if she has any beliefs about anything and why she believes them to be so. Hence, Churchland’s question, ‘Could it turn out that nobody has every believed anything’ reflects that the methods of the science lab have overflowed into the halls of the whole building of reality, like an acid consuming every bit of life so that all is reducible to its natural, accidental parts. In this view, no one really has believed anything, for beliefs are mere theoretic constructs produced by brainwaves, etc. [See below, a picture of Conor ‘trying his very best to believe Darwin’]

Merold Westphal also gave an excellent paper called ‘The Use and Abuse of Metaphysics for the Life of Faith.’ In it he discussed Marion and refuted parts of a critique of him by Milbank, but the main part that I remembered (it was the part I retold to Tiana, anyway!), was an example of ‘overcoming metaphysics’ (in the sense, I imagine, of pure metaphysics, or perhaps along the lines of his Overcoming Onto-Theology). Westphal’s example begins by talking about when he was in college, and he met this girl who he found quite attractive. They took a class together, and he would often position himself across the classroom from her so that he could ‘observe’ her while also appearing to pay attention to the professor. They dated a little bit during the fall, and he wondered if he would ever fall for her. In the spring, he did– and he fell, hard. They started seriously dating, thus entering into a real relationship, and she was no longer that observed, objectified person from across the room; now, after 44 years of marriage, of participating in a sacramental union with one another, he had, in a sense, ‘overcome metaphysics.’ I thought this was a wonderful example, and Westphal –of course– narrated his own story much better than I ever could.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Craig and Elesha Keen. Craig used to teach at Olivet Nazarene, but now teaches at Azuza. I had briefly met him before at a Wesleyan conference at my school, so it was good to hear him present another paper and to share a few meals with him. He used to teach at PLNU in the late 70’s, filling in for Dr. Herb Prince at one point (I think this is right). He moved on to other schools, and now his daughter Heather Ross is teaching in the fulltime position at PLNU now that Dr. Prince has retired. It was also fun to hear about Tony Baker’s connection with him as a student of Dr. Keen’s at Olivet. They were reading through Milbank’s The Word Made Strange (it had just come out), and then Tony went on to study under Milbank at the University of Virginia (Milbank has since moved on).

The second night of the conference, there was a very nice banquet held in one of the courtyards of the seminary. We were treated to multiple courses as well as a wonderful flamenco show. We were told by the Archbishop that this was more authentic than what tourists usually see on the streets. What a great show! We didn’t want it to end.

Beyond the content of the papers, as the Archbishop Javier Martinez pointed out in his concluding remarks, Conor Cunningham did an excellent job of organizing a conference of great theological, philosophical, and even denominational variety. Continental, analytic philosophers; Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and a Nazarene (me!); evolutionary biologists, critical theorists/psychoanalysts, political theorists, and perhaps a nihilist or two (although Conor, in his ever confessional mode, would say, “we’re all nihilists!”). The discussions after the papers and into the evenings were a wealth of fun and intellectual rigor. When he gave his paper during the latter half of the conference, one brilliant Derridian/Kierkegaardian scholar even altered the shape of his paper after engaging in discussions sparked by the work of others during the first half of the conference.

After the conference was over, Tiana and I hung around Granada for a couple more days to see the sights. We weren’t able to get on the list to see the Alhambra palace with the group from the conference that went on Monday, so we went Tuesday night. That was a real treat. Our legs were really sore after all the walking around we did, but it was good for us! We went to the main cathedral in Granada where (we were told) the Archbishop preaches. That was perhaps one of the most gorgeous places we have ever been. I must say, however, that it feels a bit weird to make active churches also into tourist attractions.

When our stay in Granada came to an end, we spent a couple days in Málaga to check out the Picasso museums and see the attractions there before heading home and recovering from jetlag and illnesses we contracted about halfway through the trip. The actual travelling part of the trip contained some of the most annoying and difficult things we have ever had to deal with, but during our actual stay in Granada and Málaga, we had a wonderful time. The people were extremely hospitable, and for that, we were both thankful.

The ‘Belief and Metaphysics’ conference provided a wonderful place for dialogue, intellectual sharpening, and perhaps most of all, friendship. I consider myself very blessed to have been a part of the proceedings. I would like to extend a special thanks to Conor Cunningham for the invite; to Point Loma Nazarene University for the warm encouragement and financial help to make the flight over there; and most of all, to Tiana for all of her support and patience through all the craziness of the travels. The rumor is that next year is in Venice!