In early 2023, I was interviewed by my old University of Chicago compatriot Adrian Guiu for the New Books Network podcast. The topic of the interview was my book On Time, Change, History, and Conversion (Bloomsbury, 2020), part of Bloomsbury’s Reading Augustine series.
Our conversation touches upon the genesis of the project, dating back to my undergraduate days spent reading the works of authors like Paul Ricoeur & Hayden White. We then discuss my interpretation of Augustine on temporality & related issues of realism/idealism, Big-Bang cosmology, notions of progress, the problem of undecidability, and the risks of political quietism. Like the book itself, our podcast conversation links up with modern thinkers such as the physicist Georges Lemaître, the public intellectual Steven Pinker, and the philosopher of history Karl Löwith, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison.
When I returned to campus after a quick Christmas break, I was pleasantly surprised to find waiting for me in my office mailbox a copy of The Unique, The Singular, and The Individual (Mohr Siebeck, 2022). This volume represents the fruits of a Philosophy of Religion conference held by Ingolf Dalferth (et al.) at Claremont Graduate University several years ago. My chapter represents an attempt to connect my own interpretation of Augustine’s philosophy of time (viz., as a critique of the present moment) to a broader circuit of arguments about instantaneity, individuation, and atomism across various schools of ancient philosophy.
The Fall semester of 2022 was an incredibly busy one. In addition to teaching three courses (Humanities 101, my Medieval Europe survey, and a senior-levels seminar on ‘Mysticism & Gender’), I presented research at multiple conferences. I’ll sketch out some brief highlights here:
In October 2022, I presented a paper entitled “Meister Eckhart, Max Weber, and the Economic Exegesis of Mary and Martha” at Villanova’s Patristic, Medieval, & Renaissance conference. Sharing the session on ‘Overcoming the Active-Contemplative Distinction’ with my fellow American Cusanus Society stalwarts Erin Risch Zoutendam and Sam Dubbelman, I discussed how Eckhart deployed economic rhetoric in his sermons and scriptural interpretations, which in turn helped give rise to Johann Tauler’s more explicitly economic mysticism. I then tried to indicate how we can build upon Weber’s century-old insight that modern economic behaviour is, at least in part, shaped by Christian lines of thinking that date back at least to these German-vernacular-using Dominican theologians of the fourteenth century.
In early November, I participated in a conference on the history of Neoplatonism organized by Gregory Moss (Chinese University of Hong Kong). My contribution, “The Temporality of Truth and Contradiction in Augustine of Hippo and Nicholas of Cusa,” explored the rather distinct approaches adopted by the late ancient North African and the late medieval German when it comes to associating (or not associating) objective truth with utter timelessness. For Augustine, awakening to atemporal truth played a crucial role in his own Neoplatonic journey to certitude. For Cusanus, however, proper timelessness coincided with the unimaginable simultaneity of contradictory opposites; eternity was, in a sense, beyond the very distinction between truth and contradiction.
Later that same November, I linked up with networks of scholars at two back-to-back conferences: the annual meetings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (in New Orleans) and the American Academy of Religion (in Denver). At the ACPA, I delivered a paper with an overly complicated name: “Should a Non-Presentist Philosophy of Time Be Considered a Praeambulum to an Augustinian Sense of the Divine?” That question could arguably be re-phrased as: “In order to adhere to Augustine’s notion of a timeless God, do you also have to agree with Augustine that the present phase of time isn’t really real?” At AAR, I did not present a new paper, but I did meet up with my fellow members on the Steering Committee of the Augustine & Augustinianisms Program Unit. We’re hoping to run some very cool sessions over the years to come, perhaps even including a series of offerings relating to Foucault’s nod to Augustinian confessio in Confessions of the Flesh (the fourth volume in his History of Sexuality).
In 2023, I plan to continue disseminating my research as widely afield as possible, provided that scheduling and funding make this possible. I can say with some certainly that I’ll be giving a paper on Catherine of Siena at the annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America in Puerto Rico this March. I am also hoping to share more work on Nicholas of Cusa at the inaugural conference of the Cusanus Society of the United Kingdom and Ireland in Scotland this June. Fingers crossed…
The episode touches upon the challenging ideas Eckhart put forward so daringly in his vernacular Middle High German sermons, from kenosis and birthing to self-annihilation and the ‘soul-spark.’ We also discuss the tortuous history of the modern German-language reception of Eckhart: his ‘rediscovery’ by the off-kilter mining magnate Franz Xaver von Baader (who saw him as a proto-Böhme and ‘spiritual alchemist’); Baader’s recommendation of Eckhart to Schelling and Hegel (the latter of whom recognized in Eckhart some kind of precursor to his own ‘system’); the professionalism of Eckhart-scholarship via Franz Pfeiffer & Josef Quint; and the threat that Eckhart’s legacy might be swallowed up by a Heideggerian or even more neo-Fascist form of appropriation.