Philosophising: 13 questions with Michael Leunig


1. What is the biggest threat to our minds?
Our minds.

2. What is freedom?
Non-compliance and creativity.

3. What illusion do you suffer from?
Other peoples’ illusions.

4. Where are humans heading?
To hell, as always – but you have to go through hell and survive it in order to get to heaven. So in the unlikely event that you do get to heaven, you’ll be in a pretty bad shape and then things are not so heavenly after all.

5. The most important part of your education?
My failure.narcissist

6. Which “thinker” has had the greatest influence on your life?
For all I know it may have been the butcher who employed me to clean up his shop every Saturday morning when I was a kid. He was a thinker in the ordinary sense – as most people are. The heart thinks too. The early primal unconscious or semi-conscious influences may have been as important to my developments as the writings of Lao Tzu or D. W. Winnicott.

7. What do you doubt most?

8. Your favourite word?

9. If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be?
Myself – obviously.

10. The question you’d most like to ask others?
I wouldn’t like to ask anyone a question unless they inspired a particular curiosity.

11. What is a good death?
I’m not sure what the choices are but I’d like to doze off smiling after lunch  in a quiet, sunny paddock near the forest, listening to the birds and not wake up; a death where the coroner’s report says ’cause of death: unknown’.

12. What do people accuse you of?
I have been accused of many things and they all amount to a nicely balanced and hugely varied array of offences, shortcomings and failures. Pretty much the full spectrum. I regard many of these accusations as compliments or testimony to my more interesting nature.

13. What is the meaning of life?
For humans as for all the plants and creatures: know yourself, grow yourself, feel yourself, heal yourself, grow yourself, be yourself, express yourself.


‘Being, After Martin’

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit

My remarkable partner, a physiotherapist and mad Western Bulldogs supporter (this latter fact is quite irrelevant here), recently dipped her pretty toes into the ponds of poetry. This is without doubt a much-to-be-celebrated achievement. Hell, it calls for a drink!

Her inaugural offering, see below, was inspired by a twin encounter – with a patient, and with the thought of Martin Heidegger, whose work she has been trying to decipher. The poem represents her attempt to bear witness to, and to contrast, two methods, as she refers to them – ‘that of the raw facts (the “scientific method”, as told from the physiotherapist’s perspective) and the subjective experience of the patient’. This is coupled with an effort to take up Heidegger’s invitation to read and recognise being with the other, and that that being itself is not exhausted by such action.

What’s not to love about all that!


Being, After Martin

On the relationship between systematic theology and analytic philosophy

As one who basically shares David Bentley Hart’s assessment of Anglo-American analytic philosophy as ‘degradingly barren’ and as ‘a silly game with poorly formulated rules, which serves as an excellent tool for avoiding thinking deeply about anything irreducible to crude propositions’, and who has enormous respect for Alan Torrance, I was interested in this recent discussion here between Helen De Cruz, Kevin Hector, and Alan on the (blessed and vexed) relationship between systematic theology and analytic philosophy.

And while I am considerably less sanguine than is Alan about the merits of analytic philosophy as a particularly helpful handmaiden in the pursuit and articulation of truth (partly on the grounds expressed in the interview about the ahistorical, acultural, and apolitical character of the way that Anglo analytic philosophers seem to go about their task; I have similar concerns, too, about those who undertake studies on Søren Kierkegaard, for example, with little or no concern to understand or attend to the context of village Lutheranism in nineteenth-century Denmark, or those who write books about Bonhoeffer as if he were a North American version of a Sydney Anglican (as opposed to an Anglican who happens to live in Sydney)), I was very grateful for the discussion, and for some of the acknowledgments contained therein, and for the opportunity to revisit the questions. I thought others might be too, so here ’tis:

On dangerous ideas to change the world

A recent episode of Q&A, filmed during the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, dispensed with the most-usual band of dull politicians and instead hosted Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer (a regular guest on the show), as well as two lesser minds – Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage. (Incidentally, I’ve never seen Tony Jones, who normally does a stellar job, moderate the discussion as poorly as he did. An off night for Tony.) As each guest responded to questions on subjects as diverse as the collapse of Western civilization, internet hook ups, women’s liberation, conservative politics and the permanence (or otherwise) of marriage in the ‘modern’ world, it became startlingly obvious that not only was Hitchens by far the best student of history on the panel but that he was also the only one who seems to hae a scoobie about the moral realities that give shape to such.

The final question, which came from Lisa Malouf, in more ways than one elicited the most revealing responses. The question was: ‘Which so-called dangerous idea do you each think would have the greatest potential to change the world for the better if were implemented?’

Here are the responses:

The entire episode, which is worth watching, can be downloaded here.

Seneca on the difference between philosophy and theology

Regular readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem will probably have observed that I’ve been meandering my way (in a somewhat slow version of what Ben Myers once called ‘binge reading‘) through Seneca’s works. (My other current binge, by the way, is Iris Murdoch’s work.) It’s been a real treat so far, and has even made me contemplate doing some serious study in classics. I can’t understand how anyone who has ever read Letters from a Stoic, or Dialogues and Essays, or Seneca’s wee essay On the Shortness of Life (an experience somewhat akin to reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the first time – you’re left completely naked!) could not be entirely mesmerised with the guy. And in an age of ‘friending’, for example, his Selected Letters are simply must reading (alongside, say, Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society). Anyway, because I suspect that most readers of this blog are both theo-blog readers and Seneca virgins, and because I’m desperate to ‘shout from the housetops what I’ve heard whispered in the darkness’ (Matt 10.27) of my own reading time, I thought I’d try and offer to you dear reader an apple or apricot or whatever fruit it is that snakes like to advertise around goodies so close to the tree of life, and that by way of some words from Seneca on the difference between philosophy and theology:

‘In my opinion, Lucilius, excellent man, the difference between philosophy and other areas of study is as great as the difference, within philosophy itself, between the branch concerned with humans and the one concerned with the gods. The latter is more elevated and more noble; it allows itself immense scope; it is not satisfied with the eyes; it suspects that there is something greater and more beautiful that nature has placed beyond its sight. (2) In brief, the difference between the two is as great as the difference between god and human beings: the one branch teaches what should be done on earth; the other what is done in the heavens; the one dispels our wrongdoings and brings a light up close to us so that the uncertainties of life can be clearly discerned; the other rises far above the darkness in which we stumble around, whisks us away from the shadows, and leads us to the source of light’.

– Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Natural Questions (trans. Harry M. Hine; The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 136.

Collingwood on philosophical writing

‘Every piece of philosophical writing is primarily addressed by the writer to himself. Its purpose is not to select from among his thoughts those of which he is certain and to express those, but the very opposite: to fasten upon the difficulties and obscurities in which he finds himself involved, and try, if not to solve or remove them, at least to understand them better … The philosophers who have had the deepest instinct for style have repeatedly shrunk from adopting the form of a lecture or instructive address, and chosen instead that of a dialogue … or a meditation … or a dialectical process where the initial position is modified again and again as difficulties in it come to light. The prose-writer’s art is an art that must conceal itself and produce not a jewel that is looked at for its own beauty but a crystal in whose depth the thought can be seen without distortion or confusion; and the philosophical writer in especial follows the trade not of a jeweller but of a lens-grinder. He must never use metaphors or imagery in such a way that they attract to themselves the attention due to his thought; if he does that, he is writing not prose but, whether well or ill, poetry; but he must avoid this not by rejecting all use of metaphors and imagery, but by using them, poetic things themselves, in the domestication of prose: using them just so far as to reveal thought, and no further’.

– R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Philosophical Method (ed. James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 209–214.

Science, Philosophy & Belief

Calvin College recently held a four-week faculty development seminar for Chinese professors and postgraduate students which featured lectures by Alvin Plantinga, Owen Gingerich, Richard Swinburne, and John Polkinghorne. MP3’s of each talk are now available for download.

John Polkinghorne
Can a Scientist Believe in a Destiny Beyond Death?
June 26, 2008, Chapel, Calvin Theological Seminary

Alvin Plantinga
Science and Religion: Why Does the Debate Continue?
July 2, 2008, Chapel, Calvin Theological Seminary

Owen Gingerich
The Divine Handiwork: Evolution and the Wonder of Life
July 9, 2008, Gezon Auditorium, Calvin College

Richard Swinburne
God and Morality
July 16, 2008, Gezon Auditorium, Calvin College

On Bastard Philosophies, Stolen Generations, and the Forgiveness of Sins

Writing of Bacon, Locke and Scottish common sense philosophy (uncritically lumped together), Nevin writes: ‘The general character of this bastard philosophy is, that it affects to measure all things, both on earth and in heaven, by the categories of the common abstract understanding, as it stands related to simply to the world of time and sense’. – John W. Nevin, Human Freedom and a Plea for Philosophy: Two Essays (Mercersburg: P. A. Rice, 1850), 42. Cited in Alan P. F. Sell, Testimony and Tradition: Studies in Reformed and Dissenting Thought (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 173.

This leads me to draw attention to a recent reflection by Aussie theologian, Frank Rees, on what it means for the new democratically-elected Australian government to say sorry for past and not-so-past sins, and why ‘sorry is not the hardest word: indeed, it will be a word of life’. Frank’s post is a timely reminder of how ‘bastard philosophies’ don’t bring life, but only death; in this case that death bred of fear, misunderstanding (of the issues, of people, and of the gospel itself) and mistrust, the wounds of which will probably take decades, if not centuries, to heal.

In a related post, Rory suggests that the apology to Australia’s stolen generation should be made on our behalf by the Governor General rather than by the Prime Minister. He writes: ‘He is the head of government in Australia, and he holds a position that is above party politics. Whatever you think about the virtues or otherwise of the current government, surely addressing this part of our history is bigger than who won the last election. I can only think that an apology coming from the GG would better speak for the nation, and it would allow the apology to loose itself from any particular party’.

I think I like this (Are there any good reasons – constitutional or otherwise – for why this cannot, or should not, happen?). But regardless of from whose vicarious lips the apology comes, one hopes that it may also model and encourage the way of life and a softening of heart (and a less bastardly-informed philosophy) for other people, governments and organisations. One hopes … [I confess to having no such confidence in human nature of itself to bring about such a change of heart. This too must be a work of the Spirit].

Frank’s and Rory’s posts reminded me of Stevan Weine’s book, When History Is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a volume which includes some powerful documentary of those closely affected by the tragedies attending the recent conflict in the Balkans. One such testimony witnesses:

I remember Bosnia as a beautiful and peaceful country. We all lived together. Before the war, it was unnecessary to know if your neighbor was Serb, Croat, Muslim or Jew. We looked only at what kind of person you were. We were all friends. But now I think it is like a kind of earthquake. A huge catastrophe. After this war nothing will be the same. People will live, but I think they will not live together. they will not share the same bread like before. Maybe they will be neighbors, but I think the close relationship will not exist any more. Because the Bosnian people, especially the Muslim people, had a bad experience, partly as a result of our attitude. (p. 13)

In his brilliant treatment on forgiveness, The Cleansing of the Memories, Geoffrey Bingham reminds us that ‘memory has always been a problem with mankind. It may seem a curious thing that man can be troubled by his past, as also delighted by it. Some memories bring a renewal of shock and trauma when they come unbidden’. Bingham proceeds to speak of ‘God’s holy amnesia’, of ‘the Divine forgetfulness’ or ‘the Divine non–remembering’. ‘God refuses to remember our sins! If then God refuses to remember our sins, why should we choose remember them?’ While our consciences never let anyone off the hook, Bingham writes, ‘God–through Christ–has so purged our sins, that they have been worked out to exhaustion and extinction, and all their power of guilt, penalty and pollution has been erased. In other words there are–effectively –no sins to remember! God has not simply ignored our sins. He has destroyed them, forever! … Of course–from time to time–we will remember the sins we once did, but we must not make them back into substantial things. God has denuded them of substance, of guilt, power and pollution. If they come to us in memory, then in faith in the Cross we should say, ‘Whilst you represent the sins I committed, you have no substance. God has emptied you, purified you, and taken away the guilt which accompanied you. You are wraiths, ghosts of the past come back to haunt me via the accusations of Satan and his hosts, but you have no substance’. [See The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf, and my post here on Redeeming Bitterness – An Interview with Miroslav Volf].

I have just finished reading Wilhelm Herrmann’s Systematic Theology (Dogmatik), which I recommend. At one point, he notes that ‘It is the realization of the impossibility of friendship with God that creates in us the religious consciousness of guilt. Obviously we cannot be quit of this burden of guilt by any effort for our own betterment; for the sense of guilt before God will paralyse our courage to start a new life’. To all who have tried to be quit of the burden of guilt by their own efforts, Herrmann’s words sound out as a prophetic rebuke and caution against the futility and arrogance of such resolve. This is one of the reasons why in the final chapter of his The Wondrous Cross (reviewed here), Steve Holmes suggests that the message of penal substitution remains an important one to teach us about God’s love, about forgiveness and about justice – for both victims and perpetrators. He writes:

Penal substitution will, of course, teach us something about justice and guilt. It will teach us first that justice cannot and will not ever be set aside. Not that there can never be forgiveness – of course not – the point of the story is precisely that there can be, and is: while crimes cannot be forgotten, yet at the same time they must also be forgiven. Cases of child abuse, where the abuser has used shaming mechanisms so successfully that none of his victims ever speak; cases of corruption, where the politician has cynically sold favours and hidden her misdeeds well enough never to be discovered; cases of war crimes, where the military officer has callously committed certain deeds, feeling secure in the knowledge that they will not come to light: these are the types of cases and situations where penal substitution becomes an important story to tell.

For the victims in such situations, the story of penal substitution holds the promise that there is justice in this world, even for the worst crimes, or the best-hidden atrocities …

For the perpetrators in these situations, the story of penal substitution holds out the invitation to stop trying to escape their crimes by their own efforts, and to find, if they dare to face up with honesty and repentance to what they have done, full and free forgiveness in Christ.

In a recent paper I heard, Alan Torrance bore witness to the truth that it is only by virtue of Christ’s vicarious humanity that we discover the two forms of liberation that are intrinsic to atonement: first, liberation as victimisers for our sin of victimisation; and second, liberation as victims from the bitterness and hatred that attend the sense of irreversible injustice, the hurt of damaged lives, irretrievably lost opportunities, and all the other evils that result from sin. There is liberation here, he said, because precisely at the point where we cannot forgive our enemies the Gospel suggests that our sole representative, the sole priest of our confession, does what we cannot do – he stands in and forgives our victimisers for us and in our place as the One on behalf of the many – and then invites us to participate in the very forgiveness he has realised vicariously on our behalf. On these grounds we are not only permitted to forgive but obliged and indeed commanded to forgive others. Alan said, ‘Where we are not entitled to forgive, the crucified Rabbi is. And where we are unable to forgive, we are given to participate in his once-and-for-all forgiveness and to live our lives in that light and from that centre – not least in the political realm’. He cited his dad (JB Torrance), who defined worship as ‘the gift of participating by the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father’. The consequence of any ethic, therefore, that warrants the name ‘Christian’ must be conceived in parallel terms, namely as the gift of participating by the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father. ‘Forgiveness’, Alan stressed, ‘is the gift of participating in a triune event of forgiveness. In an act of forgiveness, the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives as God but also, by the Spirit, as the eschatos Adam on behalf of humanity. The mandate to forgive must be understood in this light.’

The ‘apology’ that will be made when the federal government next sits is ultimately possible because in Christ, God has already confessed humanity’s sins and forgiven all parties. To say ‘sorry’ is to take up Christ’s invitation to us to ‘participate in that forgiveness that he has realised vicariously on our behalf’. It is, as Alan presses, to participate in a triune event of forgiveness in which the Father sends the Son, who, by the Spirit, forgives. And, it is to participate by the Spirit, in the action of the last Adam on behalf of humanity, to the joy of the Father. Whether or not the Australian Government (or Governor-General), those of the Stolen Generation (and their families/nations), and all Aussies (even Faris QC) know that this is what it means to say ‘Sorry’ and ‘Receive the forgiveness of sins’ does not undermine the reality that the very human actions of confession and forgiveness are at the heart of what it means to be imago dei, and to participate in the ministry of the Triune God in our maimed and besmirched world.

‘For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14).

‘See to it’, therefore, ‘that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him’. (Col 2:8-15)

The state of philosophy

Over here, As a profession, is philosophy in a better or worse state than it was in 1997?’ Among the responses is Alasdair MacIntyre’s:

If the philosophy published between 1907 and 1967 were to vanish without a trace, it would be an intellectual catastrophe.  If the philosophy published between 1967 and 1997 were to vanish without trace, it would be a very serious loss.  If the philosophy published between 1997 and 2007 were to vanish similarly, it would matter a little, but not that much.

Because I think Forsyth hit a nail on the head when he urged that we ‘think in centuries’, wouldn’t a better question be, ‘As a profession, is philosophy in a better or worse state than it was in 1897?’, or for us now, ‘in 1908’?

I don’t read a lot of contemporary philosophy so I can’t really offer much by way of opinion (though I do have my hunches) but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

On a related track, Bertrand Russell reckons that ‘The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it’. … mmm seems too simple to be true …

Looking Up From the Gutter: Philosophy and Popular Culture

‘Is this new wave of philosophers exploiting pop culture in the service of philosophical inquiry? What can Dylan’s lyrics tell us about our concepts of God? What can Monty Python teach us about epistemology?’, asks Stephen Asma. He makes a case that ‘cultural-studies scholars may balk, claiming that, in the hands of philosophers, popular culture is not being analyzed on its own terms, but is being used only to get at perennial intellectual issues of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. That’s probably true, but pop-culture philosophers are unapologetic’.

In this article, Stephen T. Asma, Professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, argues that ‘despite the hurdles of making philosophy popular (and pop culture more philosophical), there is still plenty of room to make it more enjoyable. And here the new publishing trend is definitely resonating with the next generation of philosophers. Old-school philosophers may see pop culture as a gutter, but I believe it was Oscar Wilde (or was it Chrissie Hynde, of the Pretenders?) who said, “We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”Popular culture may be a filthy gutter, but philosophers can still lie there and look at the stars’. Read the full article here. It’s good fun, but now I think it’s time to listen to some Bach! Anyone for a bash of St. John’s Passion?