Dr. Gaebler’s Summer: “Wandering Around in the Philosophical-Theological Forest” Posted on September 26th, 2023 by

This week, as we all settle into the fourth week of the semester, we’ll hear some reflections on how summer was spent by Dr. Mary Gaebler, Associate Professor of Religion.

As you’ll see, Dr. Gaebler models a deep commitment to theology as a dialogical method, that is, that ideas and discussions flower and fruit in conversation with others.

It’s a classic belief, rooted in the history of intellectual life, that in our busy modern lives we too often fail to make time for. Dr. Gaebler reminds us of how essential it really is to what we do as professors and how we should model our lives for our students. 

This summer seems to have been very short—shorter than usual.  They say, of course, that the older you get the quicker time goes by (presumably a matter of relativity), but either way this past summer seems to have flashed by at the speed of light.

As for reading and thinking, I’ve got an ongoing interest in Luther’s theology of vocation as many of you know.  In particular I’m interested in the idea that, rightly understood, “vocation” is experienced as gift rather than obligation.  (Really—you don’t need to “make your life count” because it already does!)  One of the gifts of “vocation” is the experienced discovery that your life really does have ultimate purpose and meaning.  That’s something I’ve been reading and thinking about for ages; but now there’s a potential book in the offing—somewhere down the road—perhaps….

The Episcopal Church here in town has been without a priest for some time and so I’ve also been busy doing some pulpit supply over there.  I always experience sermon-writing as a kind of spiritual exercise—focusing with care on the details and context of the assigned readings–trying to get myself out of the way so I can hear the texts ‘speaking’—to me (and to us) in the present context. The challenge of assigned texts is part of the game.  You work with the texts you get—always fun—always restorative.

Another thing I do regularly for fun, summer and winter, (though more frequently in summer because there’s more time) is to have coffee meetings with friends over at the co-op.  These often develop into long conversations about theology and the state of the world.  John Cha and I have been talking together for some time about Henri Bergson (a French philosopher working during the first half of the 20th Century.)  This has been pretty fascinating; and, as you all know, John is so knowledgeable about these things that I get to play student (and interlocutor).

For some time now we’ve been playing around with a challenge to Heidegger (and others) posed by another Henri—Michael Henry—who argues that, phenomenologically speaking, “reception” precedes being. This reminds me of the famous question, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” As a lurking Aristotelean I assume that it does make a sound—certainly one that squirrels and foxes and other woodland animals hear, even if human beings don’t.  After all, they need to get themselves out of the way of that immediate danger of being squashed as the tree comes crashing down!

But it wasn’t until I was rolling these ideas over with Garrett Paul—one of our (very smart) retired theologians (again, down at the co-op), that I began to get a handle on this idea by way of a very useful distinction Garrett raised.  Yes, the falling tree makes a “noise,” and no, it doesn’t make a “sound.”  OK—that works—assuming “sound” is something that refers specifically to the distinctively human experience of “reception” whereas “noise” is the ‘material’ reality (with its own kind of material ‘being.’)

But of course, these ideas work sideways too, calling up other ideas (at least for those of us who can’t resist wandering off the track to check out something that catches our eye along the way.)  And so, I began to put this notion of “reception” together with Luther’s theology of “justification.”  In that case Luther seems to have been an early advocate of an idea popular with later German “personalist” psychologists, philosophers, and theologians, who suggest that “we are the relationships we have.”  Notably, this seems (at least in some ways) to parallel Henry’s insistence that reception does precede being.

So, my “what did you do over your summer vacation” story is that I happily wandered around in the philosophical/theological forest over the past few months, (looking for silently falling trees?) and other odd ideas that leap out to grasp and delight us.


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