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Exploring: theology, philosophy, religion, ecology, pop-culture...and seeking the good life!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review of the CoTP's International Conference: "The Soul"

Food, song, and cheer!  These words might describe the psychology of Tolkien's fictional Hobbit people, but they also exemplify the experience I had at The Centre of Theology and Philosophy conference on the Soul at Oxford University.

I arrived home yesterday, and my first bit of analysis is that the conference was truly edifying--intellectually, spiritually, and even I dare say (because it was an academic conference) ministerially.

Firstly, the conference was at St. Anne's in Oxford.  The accommodations were nice, but who could ever wish to be confined to their quarters when the the environment is adorned with the medieval splendor and beauty of Oxford's architecture?  The only downside in my opinion, is that there was not one clear, central place for people to congregate in between sessions, but that was worth giving up just to tread where people like Lewis, Tolkien, Newman, Carroll, Hopkins and many more once walked.

The theologian and priest Simon Oliver organized the conference, and he did a brilliant job.  It was planned well and went off without a hitch!  I am thankful to him for his help and also his many aids who include these very capable students and alumni from the Univ. of Nottingham: Eric Lee, David R. Mosely, Michael DiFuccia, Sam Kimbriel (a guest lecturer at Nott.).  It was fun to fellowship once again with these very bright and lively cohorts.

There were a great many papers at this conference, and at times I was torn on where to go for each panel session had two or three equally interesting presentations.  I thoroughly enjoyed Angel Mendez-Montoya's paper on Dance and the Soul, Steve Cone's work on Theosis in Ireneaus, Christopher Ben Simpson's comparison of Merleu-Ponty and the Church Fathers, Ruth Jackson's very interesting piece on flip books etc.  These were all highly creative pieces as were others.  Indeed, most of the presentations that I participated in were directed by men and women of deep reverence for the world, that is they all are people who are guided by a profound appreciation for the mystery of life and all of its manifold relations.

The plenary sessions were fascinating.  Ian McGilchrist spoke to the group on brain chemistry and how the hemisphere's of the human brian allow a person's perception to shift between the atomistic and the whole.  His was probably the most different presentation in terms of metaphysics, and as such proved very thought provoking for the garden-variety theologian/philosopher.  Conor Cunningham's followed, and as always his presentation was engaging.  He argued against materialism as well as showed how much of the philosophy of mind (at least in contemporary thought) is self-contradictory.

John Milbank and David Bentley Hart provided some very rousing thoughts on the soul.  Milbank's was a follow up to a previous work on the soul and politics (found at ABC' Religion and Ethics page); and without much surprise, Milbank pulled from such a wide list of sources that it almost seems impossible that someone should be able to synthesize in such a thorough way, but he pulls it off so wonderfully.  Hart's was equally brilliant...all I can say is that his work has me wanting to dive head first into reading the church fathers.  He too, like Cunningham, provides a leveling critique to the contemporary "philosophers of mind."

There were other wonderful plenary presentations, but I will only highlight two more.  The first comes from the American Pulitzer prize winning author Marilynne Robinson.  She spoke against materialism and the reduction of mind to matter with eloquence and joy.  Her paper followed many of the arguments she makes in her book of essays called The Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.  Robinson utilizes Calvin's thought much, and though I do not normally like Calvin, her reading of his work is quite different than the garden variety one would find in the States.  Some people could not get over her use of Calvin, for it seems that their minds were too focused on the Reformer and the later consequences of his thought....but it seems that most of the audience, even if they were not so much into Calvin, tabled all of that for the points that Robinson was trying to make.  I fall into the second category; for me and those who did so....we were inspired by her paper, but even more so by the questions that followed (those were indeed, the best of the conference).

But what was most edifying about her presentation was the challenge for theologians to write more beautifully; theological stylings must match the importance of its content, indeed.  She pressed for the revival of the essay, and to a large degree I agree.  Wendell Berry, Stratford Caldecott, Hart's In the Aftermath, anyone?   I left Robinson's paper wanting to improve my writing skills...I was moved by her words, indeed.  And though she used Calvin for her guiding notions of aesthetics, I sense that her overall point, that is the substance of what she was saying about beauty, would be wholly affirmed by Von Balthasar too.  As an extra note, I was blessed to join her, Mark Shiffman (he was previously interviewed on this blog about the work of Wendell Berry), the Miner's (a married couple who are both philosophers) and Matthew Vest (a fellow student and friend) for dinner during the main banquet.  Talking with them all, as well as one of my favorite novelists about literature, film, theology...and even food, is something that I will always cherish.  What a delight.
Marilynne Robinson, and Me

The other presentation is one in which I will not comment on in terms of content.  It was quite deep, and there are others who are entrenched in such thought that could do much better (Christopher Ben Simpson and Corey Tutewiler to be exact).  The presenter was William Desmond.  After speaking eloquently on the soul and "soul music," he was challenged by Milbank to offer a song from one of his favorite boyhood soul singers.  And so with the lush brogue of this Irish gentleman, we closed out the conference in song, and standing cheers!  Who says that academic conferences should be boring and without joy?  Shouldn't conferences with theologians and philosophers always include laughter, song, and stories?  Well I think so and for me this conference fit the bill.

As for the food, well...let me just say that there is not much to do in Oxford (besides site-seeing and
history) except for eating and drinking in the local pubs.  And there are many lovely places to visit.  The Eagle and Child is simply o.k., but going to the place where the famous Inklings hung out was still a welcome thing for me and my travel companions.

But whether a pub has good fare or not is not the whole matter at all, rather your company can make all the difference.  I had the chance to spend time out with many wonderful human beings...who happen to be brilliant thinkers as well: Jeff Hanson, Adrian Walker, Chris Hackett, Matt Tan, Nathaniel Lee, Nigel Zimmerman, Neil Turnbull, Kimbell Kornu, Justin DeVore, Corey Tutwiler, Alyson Milbank, Orion Edgar, Nathan Strunk, Karen Kilby, Tony Baker, Pete Candler, Brent Driggers....and many more.  So in addition to some of the meaty English plates, I also got to spend time learning from these very clever people.

A few highlights: 

Simon's Tour-  After spending time at "The Bear" which is a medieval pub in the shadow of Christ
From left to right: Simon Oliver, Tony Baker, Chris Simpson
Church, Simon Oliver led Tony Baker, Christopher Ben Simpson, and myself back to St. Anne's.  But along the way he gave us his own un-official tour of the city.  He showed us where he studied, and other interesting places like where he famous "Oxford Movement" began.  (Do I hear Jerry Seinfeld sneer whilst saying "Newman!"? )

My Paper- My presentation was well received.  William Desmond said that he is now interested in watching Joss Whedon, so that is a feather in my cap, I think.  Others too agreed: Andrew Davison, Alyson Milbank, Tony Baker, etc. I enjoyed presenting with Marcia Pally and Ben Schewel....the feedback was nice, and very helpful.

Dinner at Graham Ward's- Graham Ward, the Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford, graciously included me in a dinner at his place in Christ Church.  It was stunning.  There, I got to fellowship with several other wonderful people over plates of pasta, as we discussed ecclesiology, ministry work, film, theology, and even the notion of humor.  That night truly exhibited a eucharistic sensibility!  His home is situated in Christ Church.

The view from Graham Ward's front door!Church, just check out this picture which is his view from the front door.
PhD Progress Talk- John Milbank, my supervisor had many good things to say about my progress.  He was very encouraging, and that was obviously good to hear.

Baseball is Better than Cricket: David Bentley Hart and I celebrated baseball talk at this conference, and conspired to argue with both John Milbank and Simon Oliver on the fact that baseball is a much better game, not to mention a much more metaphysically beautiful game.  Perhaps we can find a time to debate this soon....I'll probably sit silently, write notes and hand them to DBH so he can use the content in his arguments.....b/c the Lord knows I cannot defeat those two in an out an out debate of any type!  I suggest at the "Ye Ole Trip" next summer in Nottingham...!  All kidding aside, it was nice to talk America's Past Time with another true fan of the game.

A few regrets: 

Missing Papers- Sadly I missed Stratford Caldecott's paper, and I am a big fan of his work, so that is sad.  But I also regrettably missed Mary Midgley's plenary talk, Tony Baker's talk on Shakespeare, and a few others.

Missing Mass at St. Mary's- Due to the filled schedule and jet-lag, I missed church on Sunday.... I cannot help but feel as though I missed out on a gift there.

Not Spending Time With Folks That I Intended Too- The names are legion...but hey, the conference was large and packed.  Another time perhaps.

All in all: 

This conference, for me anyway, was filled with laughter, cheer, food and drink.  I learned much and am blessed with new friendships, and additionally I deepened older ones.  Even though I am now tired from the travel, I have an inner energy that is driving me to work more both in my day to day ministry work and in my PhD research.  In the end that is the initial take away from this conference.



  1. Dude, you're killing me. Wish I could've been there. But, I did have a lovely time celebrating my daughter's graduation from high school! Next time!

  2. Thanks for writing this, Jarrod. It was great seeing you again and spending some time with you. Your paper was great! Thanks for contributing to making the conference a rich time together.

  3. Jarrod,

    Excellent review of the conference. It was great getting to see you and the food stealing Justin. Also, thanks for the shout out.