“This is an impressive new contribution to current debates over the proper relationship between science and religion. Bolger argues convincingly that what he calls ‘religious scientism’ is a mistake made by both scientific critics of religion, as well as by some misguided theologians. Bolger’s careful dissection of where these very different thinkers go wrong gets to the root of many of these issues.” —Brian L. Keeley, Professor at Pitzer College
“In clear and jargon-free prose, Bolger offers sophisticated arguments to uncover the intellectual errors of applying claims of science to religion—errors made by thinkers from Richard Dawkins to Ian Barbour to Arthur Peacocke. The ‘science and religion’ debates have neglected a position that deserves the thoughtful hearing Bolger gives it. Brimming with well-informed arguments, Kneeling at the Altar of Science is both original and enjoyable.” —Lynne Rudder Baker, author of The Metaphysics of Everyday Life
“Kneeling at the Altar of Science tells it straight. Asserting that ‘God is not the type of thing that exists’ doesn’t distort religious meaning, but may, in fact, be the best, most religious way to start smashing our idols once and for all.” —Scott Korb, author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine
“Bolger’s analysis is strong, original, and provocative. His book is worthy of careful reading; his treatment of the topic deserves much further discussion.” —Willem B. Drees, editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science
Gesturing Toward Reality
“Wallace’s deeply influential postmodern pragmatism was not the casual byproduct of his novelistic vision. Rather, it was the distillation of a lifetime of urgent and rigorous philosophical engagement. Unfortunately, that deeply informed background is often obscured by the white light of his intimate, inimitable voice. Gesturing Toward Reality refracts that light to reveal the colorful spectrum of his sources. The essays assembled here are as lively as they are entertaining, and provide an accessible introduction to some of the most complex ideas in Wallace’s already challenging oeuvre.
” —Marshall Boswell, Professor and Chair of English, Rhodes College, USA, author of Understanding David Foster Wallace, and co-editor of David Foster Wallace and “The Long Thing”
“Gesturing Toward Reality is the first collection of pieces on David Foster Wallace to tackle head-on one of the things that make his work so important to so many: the power of his thinking. Approaching Wallace’s thinking from a variety of angles, the philosophers and literary critics in this volume work hard (and to great effect) to tease out Wallace’s ideas as they appear in his fiction and nonfiction, to explore how he came to them from his education and experience, how he expressed them through language, and what they meant for him and might continue to mean to us; Gesturing Toward Reality thus makes a significant contribution not only to Wallace studies but to the work of anyone interested in literature and philosophy, in the way we tell stories in order to think.
” —Samuel Cohen, Associate Professor of English, University of Missouri, and co-editor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace
Praise for Religious Language, Meaning and Use: The God Who is not There “Almost two books for the price of one! The lively essays by Robert Coburn are philosophical and personal: a delight to read. Robert Bolger argues against 'idolatry', belief in God 'up there'. In contrast stands religion anchored in a moral and personal practice. A challenging view, worthy of consideration.” – Willem B. Drees, Professor of Philosophy of the Humanities, Tilburg University, the Netherlands “Robert K. Bolger's Religious Language, Meaning, and Use is both a challenge and an invitation. The challenge is to resist religion's tendency to engage in a semantic and cognitive domestication of God that Bolger argues is a kind of idolatry. The invitation is, along with Robert Coburn, to see religion instead as a form and practice of life that is best-and perhaps only-understood when viewed from the inside.” – Kevin Timpe, William H. Jellema Chair in Christian Philosophy, Calvin College, USA Preface to Religious Language, Meaning and Use: The God Who is not There
Preface This book was born out of a friendship between myself (Robert Bolger) and my one-time philosophy professor Robert Coburn. While, in some philosophical sense, its genesis could be traced back to the day we met, it actually developed over many years of discussion on numerous topics, discussion which, while crossing many academic fields and involving many literary genres, in some way or another, always swung back around to religion. As much as anything, though, this work is the product of old-fashioned philosophical dialogue. It displays the contemporary role that philosophy still plays in helping us nurture deep friendship while discussing issues about how to best live life. While it is often thought that the philosopher sits alone, thinks really hard, and then publishes something nominally interesting (something only the chosen few will ever read), it may just be that philosophy is best seen as a team sport, a way of life, something that cannot be successfully done alone but which requires the presence of others, hopefully friends. Professor Robert Coburn (“Bob”) had a long and illustrious philosophical career at several colleges and universities but spent more than thirty years teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle (where he began teaching in 1971). His publications span a wide variety of areas in philosophy, including metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of religion, and epistemology. His book on metaphysics (The Strangeness of the Ordinary) was well received and contains one of the best chapters on the relationship between the life of faith and metaphysics that I have ever read. Due to some of his early papers on Wittgenstein and religion, Kai Nielson labeled Coburn as one of the infamous “Wittgensteinian Fideists” (a label that Coburn consistently rejected). Coburn’s thinking and writing ultimately proved far too broad, subtle, and complex to fit into any such label. While I have never read Tuesdays with Morrie, I always had the feeling that the friendship I had with Robert Coburn had a quality that I imagined must have existed between Mitch Albom and Morrie (with philosophy rather than journalism being the academic field that bring the two individuals together). As an older undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Washington, I found in Coburn a philosophical mentor and a kindred spirit. Bob not only
ix understood my interest in and struggles with religious belief (Coburn was an ordained Methodist minister, as is my wife) but also understood and accepted my semi-neurotic fear of death that I developed in childhood and carry with me, in varying degrees, to this day. (Coburn once told me that he thought my philosophical brother was Miguel de Unamuno.) I took as many classes from Bob as possible, including an independent study on Wittgenstein that he taught to a class of two (the other member of that class is today a wonderful philosopher working at a major university). Many of our discussions after class took place at the campus museum’s coffee shop—a charming little room with woodpaneled walls—where we would drink tea, discuss class, and talk about various aspects of life. I left the University of Washington for graduate school at Umass/ Amherst before transferring to Union Theological Seminary and then heading to Claremont Graduate University to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology, studying Wittgenstein and Religion with D.Z. Phillips. In 2005, Lara (who is now my wife) and I moved to Seattle. It was at this time that I reconnected with Bob and sat in on some of the last classes that he taught at the University of Washington before he retired. After a year, Lara and I moved to San Diego for two years, planned our wedding, and invited Bob and his wife to Claremont to celebrate with us (at the reception we sat Bob and his wife with David Foster Wallace). In 2008, we moved back to Seattle, and it was at this time that Bob and I made Saturdays our day to meet at the same coffee house where we spent so many days during my time as one of his students (this was my Saturdays with Bob). For several years, we would separately read the same book during the week and then get together on Saturday to have our own two-person book club. Initially, we discussed contextualism in epistemology and read Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology Volume I. Our reading was never systematic, but rather usually involved one of us suggesting something and the other either agreeing with or vetoing the suggestion. We also read such things as Brian Greene’s popular books on physics, Frederick Buechner’s fiction, David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction, Lynne Rudder Baker on the first-person perspective, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Coburn, who loved reading popular psychology, introduced me to David Eagleman’s Incognito. Among many other books and topics that I cannot even recall, we also spent almost two years reading and re-reading Mark Johnston’s books Saving God and Surviving Death. It was the Johnston books that spawned a study of J.J. Valberg’s book Dream, Death and the Self, a book I found incredibly difficult but which Bob found simply wonderful. x As the years went on, Bob quit driving, so we met at his house. After a while, Bob, who had learned watercolor painting from his wife, began to teach me to paint, and our visits would alternate between Saturdays spent chatting and Saturdays reserved for painting. One of Coburn’s many paintings was used as the cover of the book I edited with Scott Korb on David Foster Wallace and philosophy (Gesturing toward Reality). Over the years of discussion, common philosophical themes and interests began to appear between Bob and I, mainly centering on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, Paul Tillich’s theology, a belief in the importance of apophatic theology and the utter mystery of God, and an agreement that Mark Johnston had some really important things to say about religion. I had asked Bob on several occasions if he ever thought about publishing anything new or if he wanted to publish a collection of some of his previously published writings on religion; however, it seemed that the days of Bob writing anything new were probably in the past and the topic didn’t really come up again. On the ensuing Saturdays, Bob and I simply spent the time enjoying being around each other; this was so whether we were painting, reading philosophy, or discussing the latest movies or an interesting (often very lengthy) article that Bob inevitably found in The New Yorker. One day, Bob reminded me of the time I asked if he had anything on religion that he had not yet published. He then handed me a folder of papers and said that if I wanted to try and get them published, I could. The folder contained numerous previously published academic papers on a variety of topics in the philosophy of religion, but also many essays (really more like sermons) that had never been published but which I found incredibly interesting. Part Two of this present book is composed of the unpublished essays that Bob gave me that day. All of Coburn’s contributions to this book are written in the style of a sermon or as a sort of expository lesson on various topics pertinent to the Christian faith. These chapters, in both style and content, are unlike anything he has ever published before, given that he was committed mainly to publishing works that subscribed to the style of the modern-day analytic philosopher (although his interests extended far beyond the narrow scope of this branch of philosophy). Some may see these essays as simply charming little tales about certain aspects of the Christian life, but, to me, they represent an opportunity to show how faith enters our lives once philosophy has done its grammatical work. What makes Coburn’s contributions to this book so interesting (and I believe important) is that they are works that have been developed in the mind of a powerful analytic philosopher who saw that the religious life was not just xi a matter of thinking the right things, reasoning in a prescribed way or believing the right facts. These chapters are ways of talking about religious faith that, at least for a time, places religious practice at the center forcing metaphysical speculators to join the chorus of background noise. In publishing these essays, I recognized a unique opportunity to publish a work that represents, in literary form, a philosophical position about the life of faith. As I see it, the great mistake in much of philosophy of religion is its preoccupation with trying to defend a version of faith that need not be saved. There is more concern with the existence of God and God’s relationship to science than there is a concern for what the concept “God” means or how that concept enters the believers life, influencing the way they see the world around them. Once philosophy does the grammatical work of sweeping away confused accounts of religious belief, then, and only then, will we be able to see the importance of writing about faith in a way that is philosophically powerful yet void of metaphysical speculation. Coburn and I both had an appreciation for seeing religion as a form of life (or a set of interrelated language games), and this book is an attempt to bring together in one volume, philosophical argumentation about the grammar of religious belief with a description of how religious language might be spoken of if we are freed from metaphysical presuppositions and the desire to turn faith into knowledge. While the chapters that make up Parts One and Two are different in their approach and style, they all seek to present a faith that is more about practice and life and far less about believing propositions about the supernatural. It is my hope that their relative consistency, even across stylistic differences, is obvious to the reader. In his wonderful little book, With Heart and Mind: A Philosopher Looks at Nature Love and Death, Richard Taylor writes, “We are continuously assailed by two voices. One gives the testimony of the intellect or reason, the other that of simply seeing; and while one might suppose that the two would coincide, they seldom do.”1 I believe in this volume heart and mind do actually coincide. I am not exactly sure what David Foster Wallace meant when he used the phrase “every love story is a ghost story” or exactly what D.T. Max had in mind when he titled his wonderful biography of Wallace by the same phrase,2 but I do know that every friendship (which of course is a form of love story) has an end either with the death of one of the friends or because of circumstances in life that cause such things to cease. In this sense, an ending turns the ever-present friend into a kind of ghost of times past, a visitor who pops in and out of our lives, reminding us of what was and, sometimes, imparting the present with wisdom. My friendship with Bob became an event ever frozen in memory when he passed xii away in July of 2018 at the age of 88. My last visit with Bob was on the evening he died and at a time when he was no longer consciously aware of his surroundings (in any obvious sense at least). That evening, alone with Bob in his room, I read Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” talked about Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and played, on my phone, a recording of Dylan Thomas reading “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (which Coburn would often recite to me by heart). I also repeated to him the words of Julian of Norwich that he would often quote to me when I spoke of my fear of death: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” I thanked Bob for sharing his wonderful life with me and thanked him for being my friend. Then I left. About an hour later, I got the call that Bob had died shortly after my visit. In life, Robert C. Coburn taught me how to think, how to laugh, and how to love other people. In death, he showed me that in the end there is some sense to the idea that “All shall be well.” What we agreed on philosophically was that the religious life was of enough importance to human existence that it should continue to be handled with care so that it is not presented as mere superstition or simple intellectual twaddle. This book represents an attempt to present the religious life as something that still deserves to be at the center of human existence.